Episode 29: Clear as Mud

Our story so far: A lot of stuff has happened. Charlie Lowell is an aberration in the city, an honest man in a dirty job. He’s a private investigator. He was hired by Lola Fanutti to help her recover an item of great value. She’s dead now, shot down right after she killed Mr. Cello, a man crime lords and presidents bowed before. Cello had also wanted the treasure. Charlie is now in posession of a painting that supposedly contains the key to how to find the treasure, and he’s just discovered that Alice, newly promoted from being his secretary to his partner, was wrapped up in the intrigue long before she came to work for him.

There remains a fairly long list of dangerous people who would like to get their hands on the treasure, and another bunch, perhaps even more dangerous, who don’t want anyone to find the treasure at all. It’s going to be difficult to please eveyone, and these people don’t handle disappointment well.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. It starts out quite silly, has a rough episode or two, and then settles down. Writing stuff like this is something I do when others might watch TV; it’s a brain-switched-off style, though I must admit that I am doing a little extra thinking lately just to maintain some sham of continuity.

We took a break from gabbing while Alice pulled quietly on the oars. In the predawn light a stillness fell across the world; the surface of the water was smooth as a glass pool table. I watched the ripples from the oars radiate away from us, still discernible until lost in the mist. In the silence I imagined that the gentle splash of the oars could be heard in China. It was the only sound in the gray world.

Everything I could call my own was in that boat with me: a painting called the Blood of the Saint, a partner with more secrets than a Swiss bank, and a gun. I didn’t think the shooting was over yet.

Alice was watching me, waiting to see how I reacted to her revelations. My partner, daughter of a famously dead mobster. Somewhere on the other side of the world a ship sounded its horn. The mist began to glow with the coming morning. “We’d better get off the water,” I said. “We’ll be sitting ducks out here.”

Alice nodded. “We’re pretty close, I think.” Even as she spoke I started to hear shore noises, muffled by the mist. She took a few more strokes and stopped, letting the boat glide across the water. “What are you going to do now, Charlie?”

I adjusted the package wedged in my sling, the package a dozen people or more had died for two hours before. “Take a look at this painting, I guess. See what I see.”

“I meant long term.”

“Sister, that is long term, the way things are going.” I thought for another moment. “And I need to beat the crap out of your uncle. I was going to let Meredith take care of that.”

Alice’s face went through every emotion in the book in a flash and settled back on caution. “I know you liked her,” Alice said, “but sooner or later she would have killed you.” She began to row again, and soon I could see the shore. “You weren’t her first lover.”

“Did she kill your father?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who did?”

“I’m… not sure. It could have been anyone who knows about the Blood of the Saint. The same people who want to kill you now.”

“That’s reassuring.”

She allowed herself a ghost of a smile. “There aren’t as many now.”

“So what’s your angle, doll? What do you want out of all of this?”

She spoke quietly, looking straight through me into a world all her own, her eyes as vacant as 34th street after the parade is gone. “I want them all dead,” she said. The boat nudged against a stone dock and she smiled. “Here we are.” She hopped from the boat and I followed, feeling clumsy once more. I wanted to keep my gun in my hand — not that I could shoot it worth a damn southpaw anyway — but I had to put it away or fall overboard. I told myself that if Alice wanted me dead I’d already be in the long line waiting at the undertaker’s, and any other threat she could handle better than I could. I resolved to break my habit of spending time with dangerous women.

The thought made me chuckle. Was there any other kind?

“What’s funny?” Alice asked.

“I was just thinking about how nice this painting will look in my living room in San Fran,” I said.

“You haven’t even seen it yet.”

“I’m not that particular.”

We climbed gray stone steps slick with morning dew and reached street level. “I know where we are,” we said at the same time. Alice colored and smiled behind her hand. It was a gray world, robbed of color by the mist, dingy boats immobile in the still of the morning, the few people moving about wraithlike, the only color anywhere the red of Alice’s lips.

A truck roared past, six cylinders banging, a cloud of hydrocarbons in its wake, a staggering dinosaur refusing to die. Another followed, better tuned. Harbingers of the vibrant life the docks would know soon. “We need a place to flop,” I said.

Alice nodded. “The farther from here the better,” she said.

“How about San Fran?”

She smiled. Maybe she read more into my invitation than I intended. Maybe she was right. “Not yet. We have to finish here first.”

Not yet. I wondered how many people lay at the bottom of the river because they didn’t cut and run while they still had a chance. Not yet. Just a little longer. We’re so close. We’ve come too far to turn back now. The last words of saps and suckers and losers and lowlifes, the dregs of the world willing to trade life for hope. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got a score to settle.”

She took my arm and we strolled away from the shore, just a couple heading home after a longer-than-expected night. “Let’s find some breakfast,” she said. Three blocks up we found a diner, deserted except for a pair of drunks struggling to stay awake at the end of the counter. We chose a booth and sat across from each other while a tired-looking waitress in a pale blue dress dropped menus in front of us. She flipped our cups and poured coffee without asking. I guess we had that look. The waitress turned and left, and while Alice studied the menu I studied her.

She looked the same as always, only now everything was different. Her makeup was carefully applied to cover the fading bruises, red lipstick perfectly defined her full lips. The tightness at the corners of her mouth didn’t seem pensive anymore, more like determined. The way she narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the menu looked calculating. Her movements were compact and precise. She looked up and caught me looking at her; I didn’t look away. She smiled, a little sadly I thought, careful not to show the gap in her teeth. “I wanted to tell you sooner,” she said, “but things started moving so fast.”

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” I said. “How many people know who you are?”

“Not many. Some people know that my father had a daughter, but they don’t know anything about me. Daddy told everyone I was going to school in Paris. They’re looking for me.”

“You have any other siblings?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

The waitress was back. I ordered steak and eggs, pancakes, and potatoes. I was hungry, I decided. Alice had the belgian waffles. At least her sweet tooth hadn’t been knocked out.

“Collecting your inheritance might be tricky,” I said.

She nodded. “There’s lawyers and detectives crawling all over it. Plus, my uncles would rather have Daddy’s money for themselves.”

More people came in, laborers grabbing a bite before going out to build the next architectural marvel. Must be nice, I thoug
ht, to build something that will still be there when you’re gone. Outside the morning was getting brighter and traffic was starting to pick up. The city was carrying on, the way it always did, indifferent to the lives that had ended in the night. Meredith Baxter, my client — perhaps even my lover, it was difficult to tell with her — was one of those lives. I should do like the city, I thought. Just move on, the way I always did. But right then I didn’t feel like I could move at all. I was beat, tired down to the center of my bones, a weariness that went beyond fatigue and weighed on my soul. My shoulder hurt.

Alice was inspecting me the way I had her. What did she see? If I looked in a mirror would I see the same person she was looking at now?

Breakfast arrived. I struggled with the cutlery until Alice cut my steak into bite-size pieces. She smiled as she did it, concentrating on her task, and briefly I saw the Alice I had always known. Her cheeks colored and she returned to her own breakfast without meeting my eyes. “Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

We ate in silence for a minute or two, then still not looking up she stopped, her hands hovering over her plate, and said, “Are we… are we still partners?”

I thought for a moment and nodded. “We’re in this together. No point worrying about what comes after till we see who gets out of it alive.”

She nodded, not smiling, and returned to her waffle.

“It’s the Spaniards that worry me the most,” Alice said, watching as I shoveled pancakes down my gullet. “All the others are motivated by greed. I’m not sure what the Spaniards are looking for.”

“Maybe we should ask them. They seemed reasonable. They were even going to hire us. What happened about that, anyway?”

“We couldn’t come to terms on a price.”

“You made Santiago mad again, didn’t you?”

I thought I detected a hint of a smile. “Mabye. But the main thing is that I don’t think he’s going to be content just taking the painting back. He’s not going to rest easy until it’s forgotten. He won’t leave people around who know what the painting signifies.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“He never came out and said it, of course. Just a feeling I got.”

“Secrets are a difficult currency to spend,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“They’re only worth something if you keep them to yourself. The Spaniards are spending a lot of resources just to maintain the value of their secret. Not a good investment, unless they get a return some other way.”

Alice nodded. “If we can figure that out, it might give us some leverage.”

I put down my fork and signaled for the check. “Let’s find someplace quiet and take a look at this painting.”

Tune in next time for: The Eye of the Beholder!

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 9

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. The phrase “transfer student” seems to have a special meaning here; some of her classmates think she must be a robot, others a demon, and a few assume she is an escaped superweapon from a secret lab. One thing they all agree is that Allison’s arrival will be accompanied by upheaval, destruction, and possibly great loss of life. Happily, the next backup city is almost ready, and it’s a nice one.

As least Allison has started making friends with some of her classmates. Ruchia seems to be one of the more normal girls in her school, with only subtle hints of a mysterious past. Tasuki is her sidekick, an outgoing tomboy with a big toothy smile. Seiji is a dark, brooding boy who is convinced that he will end up as the transfer student’s love interest, a role he would dearly love to avoid.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison looked over her shoulder to where a group of boys sat in the bleachers while she and the other girls stretched and warmed up. She had never enjoyed gym class back in America and now her outfit didn’t help. That all the girls wore the same thing didn’t make her any more comfortable in her t-shirt and red briefs. “Don’t the boys have anything else to do?” she asked Ruchia.

“Why would they?” Ruchia asked. “It’s not like boys have P.E.”

Allison hesitated. “They don’t?”

Tasuki laughed. “Of course not. Can you imagine them dressed like this? What would be the point?” Tasuki did a cartwheel. “Come on! It’s track today!”

“Tasuki’s the fastest girl in our class,” Ruchia explained.

“Hitomi might be better,” Tasuki said, “but she trains on her own.”

“Hitomi’s amazing at everything she does,” agreed Ruchia.

The instructor blew his whistle. “First group! To the starting line!”

“That’s us!” Tasuki said. “Hooray!”

Allison was not looking forward to the race, but gym class humiliation was unavoidable even in Japan, apparently. She walked to her starting position. Tasuki was to her left, Ruchia to her right. There was something odd about the track. “Why are the lanes so wide?” she asked.

“For safety, of course,” Ruchia replied.

“Be sure to do your best!” Tasuki said.

The instructor blew his whistle. “On your marks!” Allison didn’t bother trying to get down into a crouch, although the rest of the girls did. “Get set!” The other girls were taking this race very seriously, Allison saw. She resolved to at least get to the finish line before the next race started.

“Go!”

Immediately Allison was in last place; the others surged ahead of her. Allison put her head down, pumped her arms, and ran, seeing nothing except the lane in front of her. She was aware of Ruchia in the lane next to her, then halfway down the track Ruchia wasn’t there anymore, but Tasuki was on her left. Then she was alone. Allison crossed the line and looked up and there was no one in front of her.

She turned around in time to see Tasuki cross the finish line, and the other girls behind her. If she weren’t so out of breath she would have laughed.

Tasuki smiled and gave her a hug. “Amazing!” she said. “How can you possibly run so fast with your lungs constricted that way?” The other girls crossed the finish line, each running with arms sticking out, elbows at shoulder level, swinging their forearms horizontally. No wonder Allison had won. As they finished they all gathered around her. “Unbelievable!” “Amazing!” “Incredible!” “You’re the best!” “Do you need a towel? Use my towel!”

Sitting cross-legged at the finish line, Yomiko checked her stopwatch and made a notation in her journal. “A new record,” she mumbled as she wrote. “No obvious signs of mechanical limbs, no telltale sounds of robotics.”

“Crenshaw!” the instructor called. “Excellent work! Once you learn proper form there will be no stopping you. Next group to the starting line!”

The Emergency Committee watched the race from the grandstand. The transfer student started slowly but had, despite her terrible form, overtaken all the others and won easily.

“I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise,” Kouta said.

“She has to be a robot,” Bando said.

“Who would make a robot that ran so weird?” asked Yoshiki. “She’s a lab experiment for sure. I bet she has virtual arms that stick out correctly.”

“What do you think, Seiji?” Kouta asked. “You’ve seen her at home.”

“You have?” asked Yoshiki. His nose started to bleed, just a little bit. “Did you see her… panties?” The last word was just a whisper.

“No! And as far as her being an excellent athlete, did you expect anything different? Will you let go of this stupid discussion? It doesn’t matter if she’s an angel or a demon.”

“Or a robot,” Bando added.

“Or a lab experiment,” Yoshiki countered.

“None of those things matter!”

Hitomi’s smooth voice was calm and clear after Seiji’s bluster. “They matter.” The Committee turned as one to see her standing quietly outside their circle. She was dressed in the traditional garb of a swordsman, with a katana in her belt. She stared solemnly down at the girls gathered at the finish line. “Will Allison Crenshaw be rival or enemy?”

“She might even be a friend,” Kaneda said.

Hitomi smiled quietly. “That’s what I said. Rival.”

Seiji looked at the rangy girl with her dark, flowing hair, and allowed himself a glimmer of hope. Who said the person whose life was to become pure hell had to be a boy? He spoke carefully. “It may be that finding the proper trainer for the transfer student could be the difference between angel and demon.”

Hitomi looked down at the field, where Allison was preparing for another race. “She is soft.”

Seiji smiled to himself. “Who better than you to remedy that?”

“Who indeed?” asked Hitomi. “Although she has signed up for the fencing club.”

“Azusa,” Bando said softly.

Hitomi nodded curtly. “Azusa will work the transfer student mercilessly. As she should.”

“I thought you didn’t like her,” Seiji said.

“Whether I like Azusa or not is of no importance. However, I do not trust her. I will also train the transfer student.”

In the center of town, at the top of a hill, is a building with no windows and only one door. The walls are gray concrete, polished to an almost metallic shine, reflecting the harsh glare of the sun. There are no signs on the outside; but all in town know that it is the headquarters of Biological Computation Institute. The town is thankful for their presence; since the outbreak of White Shadow the institute has taken in hundreds of infected citizens. None have ever emerged, but the town takes solace knowing they are well-cared-for.

Deep within the walls, five old men sit around a table. Each has a distinctive physical characteristic, a mole here and a bulbous nose there. They speak in turn, but they seem interchangeable, as if they are simply puppets carrying out a necessary debate.

“The Truth of the World is the key,” big nose says.

Gold tooth answers. “White Shadow brought the girl here.”

“She cannot be The Truth of the World,” the toothless one says.

“White Shadow thinks she is,” says the bald one.

“We know almost nothing of the girl. Her past is in shadow.”

“We should kill her.”

“That would hinder White Shadow, but if she is The Truth of the World…”

“Why should we do anything?” the toothless one asks. “Our power is growing every day. Your only complaint is that White Shadow is doing its job too well.”

Bignose bows to his toothless colleague. “Because if we don’t stop White Shadow now, we will be sucked in along with the rest.”

“Without The Truth of the World, we will never regain control of White Shadow.”

“Without The Truth of the World, White Shadow will never reach it’s full potential.”

“We must test the girl.”

“We must kill the girl.”

“Perhaps those are the same thing.”

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 8

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. The phrase “transfer student” seems to have a special meaning here; some of her classmates think she must be a robot, others a demon, and a few assume she is an escaped superweapon from a secret lab. One thing they all agree is that Allison’s arrival will be accompanied by upheaval, destruction, and possibly great loss of life. Happily, the next backup city is almost ready, and it’s a nice one.

Allison is having plenty of problems of her own. There is a computer virus called White Shadow on the loose, and it seems to be what caused her uncle to transform into a menacing cybernetic creature. Her Aunt is missing; perhaps incorporated into the man/computer hybrid that used to be her uncle.

As least Allison has started making friends with some of her classmates. Ruchia seems to be one of the more normal girls in her school, with only subtle hints of a mysterious past. Seiji is a dark, brooding boy who is convinced that he will end up as the transfer student’s love interest, a role he would dearly love to avoid.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison paused by the front gate. The house was quiet, but the porch light was on. The rest of the street shimmered in the light of the almost-full moon. Somewhere a cricket chirped. “Thanks for walking home with me,” she said to her classmate.

“Oh, it’s no problem.” Ruchia looked at the house next door. “So… that’s where Seiji lives?”

“I guess so. I’ve never actually seen anyone there.” Allison looked up and down the deserted street. “Actually, I’ve never seen anyone in any of these houses. The lights are always off as well.”

“I’m not surprised, with electricity prices these days. I wonder if Seiji’s with Tomoko right now.”

Allison thought there was some extra sadness in Ruchia’s voice. “Were you and Seiji dating in the past?”

“I guess you could say that. We used to spend a lot of time together before… Well, that was a long time ago.”

“Before what?”

“Before his mother died.” She wrung her hands. “Tomoko knows about it, but she wants to declare her love anyway.”

“Maybe she’ll help him relax a little,” Allison said.

“Maybe. He could really use it. His father is never home, either,” Ruchia said. “You know what that means.”

Allison nodded even though she had no idea what it meant. “Seiji is alone in the house?”

“Oh, no, he has two little sisters who are total brats. They love to torment him. Which just goes to show.”

“Show what?”

“Poor Tomoko. I hope she’ll be all right.”

“What will Seiji say when she asks him to go out with her?”

Ruchia looked into the distance. “I don’t know. Maybe that he needs time to think about it. Maybe that it’s too dangerous to be around him.”

Dangerous?”

“Well, yeah, of course it’s dangerous. Maybe for a transfer student it seems normal, but for sweet little Tomoko…”

Allison clenched her fists at her side. “What’s the big deal about—”

The front door of her house opened. “Allison, is that you, dear?”

“Is that your Aunt?” Ruchia asked. “I thought you said she was gone.”

“Who’s your friend, dear? Don’t keep her standing out in the dark. Come in, come in! There’s plenty of dinner left over for both of you.”

Ruchia’s stomach groweld in a timely fashion. “Great! Thanks Mrs. Takanawa.”

Allison intervened. “Ruchia’s in a hurry, Auntie.” To Ruchia she said. “You do not want to go in there. It’s not safe.” Allison regretted not telling her friend the full story about the strange events in her house. Stories of missing people and cybernetic monsters seemed too crazy to even bring up but now one of her only friends was walking directly into deadly peril.

“Don’t be silly,” Ruchia said. She stepped through the gate and up the short path to the front door. “She seems very nice.” Before Allison could think of a way to stop her Ruchia was in the door and kicking off her shoes. “Something smells delicious,” Ruchia said.

“Why thank you, dearie,” Allison’s aunt said. “I’m so glad you came by. I hardly ever have a chance to entertain anymore. Not since my husband died all those years ago.”

“He was here this morning!” Allison protested. She slipped past Ruchia, ready to defend her friend from whatever came out of her uncle’s computer room. The last time she had looked in, the room was like the lair of some creepy cybernetic creature that had her uncle in its web.

Allison stopped short in the hallway. The computer room was not there. Where there had been a door that morning, there was nothing but a blank wall.

“Allison!” her aunt chided. “You know better than to wear your shoes inside.”

“This is delicious, Auntie T!” Ruchia exclaimed as she dug in to the feast.

“Oh, no, this is nothing,” Allison’s aunt said. “Just something I threw together.”

Allison had eaten plenty of her Aunt’s cooking, and it had never been like this. “This really is good,” she said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice.

“Why thank you dear,” her aunt said. “It’s so nice to have someone to cook for.” In all her time in the house, Allison had never heard her aunt utter more than ten words, and certainly not a word of kindness. Auntie Takanawa looked concerned. “Is something wrong tonight, dearie?”

Something was wrong, very wrong, but there was no point bringing it up with her aunt. “It was a long day,” she demurred.

“Yeah, and we still have a lot of studying to do,” Ruchia said.

“You girls work so hard these days,” Auntie T said. “I hardly ever see Allison, she’s so intent on her books. Things were so much easier when I was your age. You girls go on upstairs and I’ll bring you a little something later.”

“Thanks, Auntie T!” Ruchia said, standing up. It took Allison a little longer to straighten her legs and rise from the low table. She was getting better at it, though. They grabbed their backpacks and headed upstairs.

“Can you see Seiji’s house from your window?” Ruchia asked.

“No, my window faces the other side,” Allison said.

Only now it didn’t. She hadn’t noticed any change in the path she took to get to her room, but now it faced the other direction.

To Allison’s surprise, Ruchia opened her pack and pulled out books. The thought that one of her friends was actually going to study capped the most perfectly strange day ever. Allison pulled out her own books. She had the math under control, but Japanese literature was killing her. She suspected that if she could understand their literatuure, then a whole lot of other things might make more sense as well. Although she didn’t think houses that changed their own floorplans would be included.

Ruchia had a book in front of her, but her eyes were on house opposite the window. “Which window is Seiji’s?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Allison answered.

“Have you ever caught him…” Ruchia blushed. “You know… looking?

“NO!” Allison said.

“Really? Huh.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, it just seems natural, with him right there, and you’re so pretty and a transfer student on top of that—”

“All right, that’s it! What is it about transfer—”

“Shh! He’s home! Look!”

The light came on in the window directly facing hers, and there was Seiji, with two younger girls climbing on him. He looked across between the houses and met Allison’s gaze. He froze, his jaw hanging open, a vein pulsing on his forehead.

The girls didn’t seem to notice. She could faintly hear them squealing and shouting insults at him. He just stood, watching her, and from where Allison stood it seemed like a weight settled upon his shoulders. Or perhaps more accurately the weight that was already there got heavier. In that moment he dropped his guard and Allison glimpsed the deep sorrow that lay beneath his gruff exterior, and her heart went out to him. He shook his head and gave Allison a ghost of a smile, then turned around and switched off his light. He was silhouetted against his doorway for a moment, then he was gone.

“Poor Tomoko,” Ruchia said.

Seiji made his way back downstairs, carrying both his sisters.

“Who was that girl in the window, big brother?”

“Yeah, who was that?”

“No one,” Seiji grumbled, though he knew there would be no dodging the issue.

“Is she in your class?”

“You’ve met Ruchia before,” he said.

“No, stupid, the other one!”

“Her skirt was awfully short.”

“She looked like an American.”

“She’s in your class, isn’t she?”

“She’s pretty.”

“You like her, don’t you?”

The two girls hesitated, then said in unison, “She’s a transfer student!”

Seiji sighed. “Yeah, she’s a transfer student. But it’s all right. She already has a boyfriend.” He knew it wasn’t true, but as long as the rest of his friends believed it, he could maintain the pretense. Maybe in the meantime another boyfriend would appear. He’d even be happy to see Kenzo return if it got him off the hook, and that was saying something.

His sisters seemed disappointed. “Are you sure?” little Yuko asked. “Sometimes with transfer students…”

“Believe me, we’re much safer that way,” Seiji said, but his sisters were subdued for the rest of the evening. He slept on the sofa downstairs that night, and resolved to sleep there for the rest of his life. He was never, ever, going to look out his bedroom window again.

Ruchia lay sprawled somewhat indelicately, drooling into her textbook. Allison quietly closed her own book and opened her laptop, careful to avoid connecting to any network. White Shadow was behind all this somehow, and it was time to do something about it. Fight fire with fire, and virus with virus. Allison knew a little bit about computers.

In a place neither light nor dark, a place without dimension, without sound but also without silence, White Shadow laughed without humor. Allison Crenshaw was acting as predicted. It would be a matter of days for her to complete her hack, and the spark of her genius would provide the final component to make White Shadow whole.

Episode 28: The Invisible Hand

Our story so far: There’s a thing that people want. Or maybe it’s a pile of things. Fact is, no one seems to know what the thing is, but it’s big. Big enough to kill for. Big enough to die for. Meredith Baxter just made that choice right in front of Charlie’s eyes. Whatever the thing is, Charles Lowell does not have it, and he really isn’t that interested in having it. That’s what makes him a valuable ally. Now several factions are banking on Lowell to bring them the goods, and he’s not going to be able to please all of them. There is a painting which contains clues as to the location of the treasure, and now Lowell has has the painting – or a least he has a box that everyone assumes contains the painting. He is trapped at the end of a pier after a gangland shootout, and who should turn up but his faithful and plucky assistant Alice…

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. It starts out quite silly, but then settles down. This is all written in brain-dump style, so you get what you paid for it.

From the far end of the pier, the end connected to land and to safety, a search light erupted. At this distance the beam was muted by the fog into a dull glow, and I knew that it was doing little more than lighting up the fog. We were safe for a few more moments.

“You have a boat?” I asked.

“Of course. Come on.” Alice gestured with her gun but didn’t put it away. She hesitated. “What do you think the distance is to that searchlight?”

“You’re thinking about shooting it?”

“It would buy us time.”

It seemed there was a lot I didn’t know about Alice, but there are limits. She was not going to hit her target with her 9mm pistol when she didn’t even know the range. “Yeah, they’ll hold back and send bullets instead. A lot of bullets.”

She nodded. “This way,” she said. I followed to another cold metal ladder vanishing over the edge of the pier. “You first.”

Once more I negotiated a ladder with the package wedged in my sling. At the bottom was a dinghy, deceptively still in the water until I tried to put my foot into it. It swung around and I almost wound up in the drink. If I fell in, which would Alice rescue first, me or the package? I chuckled at my own naivety.

Right then, I might have been able to destroy the painting. Sea water certainly couldn’t have been good for it. I could have taken a dive, gone deep, and cracked open the box. I didn’t.

I pulled the dinghy closer with my foot and managed to fall into it without capsizing it. “What the hell are you doing down there?” Alice hissed.

“I never got the seamanship merit badge,” I grumbled back.

She responded by snapping off four quick shots with her pistol. A second later the spotlight went out and the cops opened up with their own arsenal. By then Alice was halfway down the ladder, her tight polka-dot skirt hiked up to her thighs. With my good arm I steadied the boat against the ladder as she stepped in. Yeah, she had gams all right. She pulled her dress back down with a little shimmy and fixed me with a glare more dangerous that any gun. “Some gentleman you are,” she said. Her anger evaporated and she turned away, suddenly shy. Then just as fast she was all business. “Looks like I’m rowing,” she said. I will never understand dames.

Bullets cracked and snapped throught the air over our heads, digging into the wood of the pier with dull thuds and smashing into the little shed. In the heavy air the reports from the guns seemed dull, like they were happening in someone else’s life. Alice began to row.

I sat in the back of the boat, facing her. She wore a dark number with white polka-dots that seemed to glow on their own in the low light. The pale skin of her arms disappeared into dark gloves which hardly seemed adequate for protecting her soft hands. Her strokes on the oars were smooth and what she lacked in strength she made up for in skill. Occasionally a light would penetrate the pea soup around us and I could tell that we were making good time; the tide was sweeping us right along.

Her hands were full; I had a gun. We both knew that, so there was no need to pull it out.

“Fancy meeting you here,” I said.

She hesitated for a fraction on the oars, then began pulling again. “Does it have to be now?” she asked.

“You lied to me, Alice.”

“No!” She controlled her voice. “Only about small things.”

“You brought Cello to the pier tonight.”

“Yes.”

“And now Meredith is dead.”

“I didn’t think—”

“Think what?”

“I thought she’d handle it better.”

“Better, huh? Perhaps kill me instead, for selling her out.”

Alice stopped rowing and put her face in her hands. “It was Cello I wanted dead. Sooner or later he was going to kill you. And… I wanted her to take the fall.”

“You got your wish.”

Her sobs were getting louder. “You made me your partner, Charlie. You can’t imagine what that meant to me. You made me your partner.”

“Who do you work for?”

“You.”

“Who else?”

“No one. Not any more.” She took up the oars and began to row again. The splashing as the oars lifted from the water was the only sound for a while. A breeze kissed my cheek; the fog would break up soon. Alice looked tired. She spoke between strokes. “Before… I worked for Vittorio Fanutti. My father.”

That was a dot I wasn’t ready to connect. The eels had barely started on Vic’s carcass when she came to work for me, for peanuts on a good day. And somehow her stepmother had come to me. I’d been on this case much longer than I had realized. Alice had singled me out. I tried to feel fortunate.

“Meredith didn’t know, did she?”

“Of course not. That bitch was ruthless.”

High praise coming from this girl. In the wash of shock one thing became clear. “You good with a rifle?” I asked.

“I prefer low-calibre, high-velocity,” she said.

“I guess I owe you one, then.”

“No,” she said. She smiled and in the dimness I saw the dark gap where her front tooth should have been. “We’re partners.”

Tune in next time for: Clear as Mud!

Curse of the High Bar

Thought I’d do a little stream-of-consciousness detective writing this afternoon. It’s been a while, and I miss Charlie and the rest of the cast of Feeding the Eels. Of course, I have no memory of where things left off, so I went back and read the last three episodes. And there’s a bit of a problem.

See, there are parts of those episodes that are actually pretty darn good. Considering the rules I’ve set for myself as far as just spewing out the story, this next episode is sure to be a letdown. That’s the way it goes, I guess. By the time you read this we will all know how well I did. Hopefully this little sorry-in-advance will allow me to kick back and produce some raw spewage.

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 7

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. Kaneda has been assigned by a group of his classmates to be nice to Allison, to learn what her secret superpowers are. Because who ever heard of a transfer student without secret superpowers?

Meanwhile, there is a computer virus running around, called White Shadow, that somehow infects the minds of computer users. Kaneda has been “infected” by the virus, and now White Shadow has contacted Allison directly. In order to save one of the only people who is nice to her, she was forced to brave being infected herself. Now Kaneda has been rescued, but that doesn’t mean life is normal.

Rather than go home, where her weird “uncle” is slowly being entombed by a growing computer system that is somehow connected to White Shadow, Allison agrees to go to meet with her classmates at a local diner.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison grabbed Kaneda’s arm as they walked into the diner, intimidated by the activity. She didn’t recognize anybody, it was all a rush of colors and noise. Kids were in every booth, looking almost horrifically cheerful. Waitresses flitted about, all young, all with tiny waists and large chests straining against their little aprons; their skirts were even shorter than Allison’s, revealing frilly petticoats underneath. Their stockings were decorated with lacy bows.

“Two more sodas!” one waitress called out.

“OK!” one responded from behind the counter.

“Four cakes!”

“Two burgers and fries!”

“Got it!”

Allison wondered why they needed waitresses at all; it would work just as well for the customers to shout out what they wanted. Still, at all the tables people were having conversations despite the racket.

Allison tightened her grip on Kaneda’s arm, searching for the courage to she needed to walk into this confusion. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come…

“Allison!” It was Ruchia, her best friend in class, the girl who sat next to her and who even made sense some of the time.

“Over here,” Kaneda said, guiding her gently with his arm.

They were seated at a booth in the corner, the only table with occupants who didn’t look like they were on happy pills. Tasuki was there, grinning mischievously as she looked back and forth between Allison and Kaneda. Allison felt her cheeks redden as she let go of his arm. Seiji was there as well, glowering under his bangs, his arms folded across his chest. Allison wondered if he had any expression other than scowling. Kouta sat next to Tasuki. Allison didn’t know much about him, except that he seemed to be the leader of the boys in class. She suspected that he knew why the boys never spoke to her.

Tasuki scooted over, pressing herself against Kouta, perhaps a little more than was strictly necessary. “C’mon, guys, squeeze in!” Kaneda sat next to her, leaving Allison no choice but to push in next to Seiji.

“We’re glad to see you’re OK, Kaneda!” Tasuki said. “We were worried!”

“How did you know…” he started, before Allison kicked him under the table. No sense bringing up their brush with the White Shadow; they thought she was strange enough already.

“Know what?” Seiji asked, his eyes burning into Kaneda. He didn’t look at Allison. “Something happened, didn’t it?”

“What? Oh, no! It was nothing!” Kaneda said with a wavering voice.

“You were on a date, weren’t you?” Tasuki asked. “I knew it!”

“No!” Allison and Kaneda said together.

“She was just… um… helping me with my English,” Kaneda said. A drop of sweat appeared on his forehead.

“You sure it wasn’t French?” asked Kouta. He was smiling as he teased them. Did that mean Kouta had finally accepted her? Everyone laughed except Seiji.

Ruchia elbowed him. “Geeze, Seiji, lighten up sometimes. You’re being a jerk.”

“Yeah, Seiji!” Tasuke chimed in. “You could at least say hello!”

Seiji took a long breath. “You’re right. Hello.” he never took his eyes off the table in front of him.

“Hellooo, Seiji,” the waitress said with a song-song voice as she hovered over the table. Allison thought she looked familiar. Had she been at the monastery? In class? She was looking at the brooding Seiji with wide, sparkling light-brown eyes, so light they were almost yellow. She didn’t seem to notice the other people at the table.

“Hello yourself,” Seiji said. Ruchia elbowed him sharply. “Ow!” he said, then with a slightly warmer voice, “Hello, Tomoko.”

Allison thought the girl colored when Seiji said her name. “Will you walk me home when I’m done with work?” she asked.

“I—” Seiji glanced around for an excuse, but no one was willing to help him. “Sure,” he said.

“Really?” she asked. “Super! See ya!”

“I’d like a…” Allison said to the space the waitress had occupied, but Tomoko had already turned and vanished into the confusion.

Ruchia leaned over to Tasuki across the table, as if she were telling a secret. “Tonight’s the big night, I bet.”

“You think?” Tasuki asked. “She’s gonna do it?”

“Yep. Tonight for sure.”

“Oh, how romantic!” Tasuke said. She turned to Kouta. “Don’t you think it’s romantic?”

“Uh…” Kouta sensed a trap, but didn’t seem to know what to do about it.

“First Allison and Kaneda, and now Seiji too!”

“What!?” The three people named said at once.

“Is there anyone you’re interested in, Kouta?” Tasuki pressed. Subtlety, Allison thought, was not her strength.

Kouta turned red and looked uncomfortable. Allison had never seen him look so human. “Um… I can’t say,” he said.

Tasuki took that for a ‘yes’. “Is it someone… close?”

“I guess you could say that.” He reddened further. Tasuke said nothing more, but she looked very happy. Kouta, Allison thought, looked more worried.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kaneda said.

Tasuki punched him in the shoulder. “What a terrible thing to say!”

Kaneda blinked. “What?”

“Take back what you just said!”

Kaneda looked confused. “Did I say something?”

The others at the table watched him closely, but he didn’t seem to be joking around. Allison thought about what White Shadow had told her. You may find your friend … changed. No doubt about it, the trouble was getting deeper and deeper.

Azusa stode down the hallway. The sound of her boot heels on the hard floor echoed off the stonework. She always felt like she was in a mideval Eurpoean castle when whe was in this building. Her red hair trailed behind her, the curls at her temples extending and contracting with her stride. Her face was set in a scowl, but that was not unusual.

She stopped at a painting of Murai Kunio, the founder of the academy. Mr. Murai had served overseas somewhere, no one was exactly sure what he did or with whom, but he had returned a wealthy man. He had spent his entire fortune on the Academy, but it was unclear just where all the money had gone.

Azusa knew part of the secret. “Fuyutsuki Azusa,” she said, and a laser scanner passed over her face. “Accepted,” a disembodied female voice said, and where before there had just been a blank wall, now there was a door. She entered, and went down a hallway to the Student Council chamber. The others were waiting for her. She never saw them in the hallway; she suspected they each had their own secret entrance.

They each sat in leather chairs, deep and comfortable with wings that shadowed the faces of the others, protecting their identies for a time when it was more convenient to reveal them. A fire crackled on an iron grate in the cavernous fireplace. She was always last, it seemed. Didn’t these other people have lives outside this room? Azusa took her seat. The student council was in session.

Their leader, a tall boy with pale skin and long, dark hair, spoke. “We have a transfer student.”

Another boy, shorter, his hair short also, said, “it is as predicted.”

A blonde girl spoke, “Pah. I have no time for silly prophesies. This is our chance to make our own glory.”

The leader frowned slightly at the insubordination. “Kenzo will learn about her sooner or later.”

All the members of the Student Council sucked in their breath sharply at the mention of his name. “We must move before he does,” the shorter boy said.

The leader nodded. “The transfer student has decided to take up fencing.”

“Yes, leader,” Azusa said.

“Interesting, don’t you think?”

“Yes, leader.” Azusa was thankful that her eyes were concealed; the leader liked to milk drama from things they all knew already. Azusa thought she could do a better job as leader, but the other was anointed by the Greater Powers. Only by following with absolute faith could she hope to advance.

“You will humiliate her!” the leader cried.

“Yes, leader!”

“If we break her, she will be ours to use,” the blonde girl said.

“So the Master has predicted,” Azusa said, “and so it shall be.”

Episode 27: Day of Reckoning

Our story so far: There is something a lot of people are prepared to do a lot of bad things to get, a thing of such value that for its possessor it renders the idea of money inconsequential. Charles Lowell does not have that thing, but he and his faithful assistant Alice have been caught in the middle of a struggle for the possession of a painting that is said to contain a map to the fabulous treasure.

Now Charley has the painting, and people around him are starting to kill each other at an alarming rate. Meredith Baxter, a.k.a Lola Fanutti, his employer and one-time lover, has fallen in the opening stages of a shootout on a pier over the East River.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I ran through the pea-soup fog, hunched over, the package wedged close to my chest. Behind me guns cracked and chattered furiously, and more than once I heard grunts, coughs, and cries of pain choked with blood.

Ahead loomed the glow of the single bulb, and my running was finished. The light cast a feeble glow over the door of the shack that seemed to hover in the darkness, the entire world reduced to me, a weathered wooden door, and a few rough planks between us.

Behind me, the intensity of the gunfire was decreasing; I figured that most of the men still standing must be running out of ammunition by now. If only they could all kill each other. Someone would survive, however, and once the opposing faction was eliminated, they would start looking for the package I carried. A painting, Meredith had said, that carried in its imagery the key to a treasure worth dying for. Plenty of people had done just that. I wondered if there was anyone alive anymore who even knew how to read the damn clues I supposedly carried.

Meredith lay back there, dead. I thought of the look she had given me before she pulled her trigger. Did Meredith die — kill herself, really — because of me? Because I had contacted Cello?

It didn’t matter, I told myself. Dead is dead, and the top priority now was not becoming one of the dead myself. There would be time for second-guessing later, on the long nights when the whiskey wasn’t enough. Remorse is a luxury reserved for the living.

Cello. He was dead now as well. How had he found us? I had passed word to him, but nothing specific. Obviously he had other sources of information as well. In the end, all I had done was give him a way to get under Meredith’s skin, a tool he used at the cost of his own life. He hadn’t thought Meredith would fire, either. She was colder than that, not prone to such an emotional response.

Damn, I wanted a drink.

Silence had fallen over the pier. I listened to the gentle sloshing of the water below me, smelled pungency of decay and life and fuel oil. There was a whiff of something else as well, something that didn’t belong here.

With my pistol I smashed the light bulb, but I didn’t try the door to the shack. It wouldn’t protect me in any case, and that’s the first place anyone would look for me. The first place and the last place; there was nowhere else to hide except in the darkness itself.

I groped my way to the left, careful not to fall off the pier. My hands met the rough wood of a pylon and I crouched down, thinking, waiting, hovering between earth and the dark water below, the water that held the secrets of this mad city, the people and things lost and forgotten save for quiet whispers and legends. Gone, now, all of them, all those people, gone along with their hopes and dreams, reduced to lunch for the eels who lived in the darkness. In the end, that’s all any of us could hope for. We were born to feed the eels.

Footsteps approaching, heavy on the planks; two people, one’s shuffling gait betrayed injury. They moved cautiously, and carried no light that would make them a target. I considered trying to slip past them, hugging one edge of the pier. I decided to make a move when they were checking the shed; the noise they made might help mask my own movements. It was about the only chance I was going to get. Despite the chill air my palm was wet where I held my little Walther.

It seemed an eternity for the footfalls to come close; the silence and the heavy air played tricks with the sound, making them seem closer than they were. In the distance I heard a siren.

The footsteps stopped, only a few feet from me but the source still invisible. There was a pause as the two men sized up the shack in the darkness. After a few seconds the silence became absolute once more. Finally one of the men cleared his throat.

“Charley?” he said. “You in there? Mr. Lowell? It’s OK, it’s just us.” He didn’t specify who just us referred to. I waited.

“Mr. Lowell,” the other man said, “Ms. Fanutti told us to look after you if things went wrong. Told us to do what you said.”

The sound of sirens was close now, and I heard the screeching of brakes. I could convince myself that back down the pier I could make out the throb of flashing red lights.

“Mr. Lowell?” one of the men said. “Listen, we’ve got to get out of here.” I heard a rustling sound from within the shed. The door opened with a soft moan. Suddenly light shone from within. “Who?” was all the first man said before four more shots cracked out in the night, the four muzzle flashes turning the surrounding fog brilliant white for an instant. The light from the shack went out before the two had even hit the ground. The door of the shed closed quietly. From shore came more excited voices as the police prepared to assault the pier.

“Charley,” a voice said, quietly, in control. A woman’s voice. “I’m glad you’re all right. There’s not much time. I have a boat over here.”

“Alice,” I said. “I thought that was your perfume.”

Tune in next time for: The Invisible Hand!

Episode 26: Reunion by the River, part four

Our story so far: There is a thing, an object of some sort, of incalculable value. Many people want this treasure, want it enough to kill for it. Others are equally willing to perform violence to ensure the treasure is NOT found by anyone. Charles Lowell doesn’t give a damn about the object; but people are trying to kill him anyway. He has been hired by Lola Fanutti, neé Meredith Baxter, wife of a now-dead crime lord, and she holds a vital clue to the location of the object. Well, she doesn’t actually have the clue, but she knows where it is. Or, at least, she says she does. She’s not very good at the truth, sometimes, and it often seems that Lola Fanutti and Meredith Baxter are two different people, and she changes without warning.

It is now Sunday, the day Meredith said she could recover the Blood of the Saint, a stolen painting which contains the key to finding the treasure. Many factions have asked Charlie, with varying degrees of politeness, if he would tip them off when she had the painting, so that they might take it from her. Charlie can’t satisfy them all, and those he doesn’t help are not going to be happy. In this crowd, “anger management” means “stay calm so you don’t miss your target.”

Charlie is now in a limo with Meredith, speeding toward the East River, there perhaps to recover the painting. They are protected by a group of toughs who may or may not be loyal to them, and unbeknownst to Ms. Fanutti, Charlie has sent word to one Mr. Cello, self-made lord of the underworld. Meredith thinks something is not quite right, but she can’t put her finger on it.

Those new to the blog should be aware that this story is not planned out — not even the episode I’m writing at the time. I just try to get into voice and let the ideas hit the page unfiltered and barely edited. Inconsistencies, oddities, and questionable actions are par for the course.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

She looked out the window as we sped along, her brow creased in concentration, concern, or both. I watched her; there wasn’t much I could hope to do cooped up in the car if it turned out the people around us weren’t loyal. In the end, she was my problem, the hub of the wheel that threatened to run me over. She felt my gaze and looked across the car at me. “A penny for your thoughts,” she said.

“I don’t think you’d be getting your money’s worth,” I said.

She smiled, more out of courtesy than any found humor. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“I think maybe it’s time to make a deal.”

“With whom?”

“Whoever gives us the best chance of getting out of this with our skins. Cello could protect us.”

“You want out?”

“I never wanted in.”

She sighed and looked back out the window. “Do you know what it’s like, Charlie? Being on top?”

“No.”

“You get used to it in a hurry. I can’t live at the bottom of the whole shit-pile that is humanity any more, Charlie. I just can’t. Not after tasting the good life at the top. I’ll take a swift death reaching for the stars over the slow death stretched out over decades while lying in the mud.”

“There will always be another chance.”

“Not like this one, Charlie. There will never be another chance like this, ever again. Whoever controls this treasure will never have to worry again. About anything. I’m going to be that person, Charlie. I’m going to sit at the very top of the pile and I’m going to run the show. But… it would be better if you were there with me.”

“All those fancy clothes and people fetching things for me makes me nervous.”

She laughed. “Is that what you think it’s about? The mansions, the servants, the people standing in line to kiss your ass? Those mean nothing. Just money. I like money, and I plan to have a lot of it, but that’s not what this is about.”

“Oh?”

“For the few at the top this isn’t just the world, Charlie, it is their world. The world you see out there has been shaped by them, according to their rules. You’re just a little rat in a maze, running about looking for a bit of cheese. But they built the maze, and they decide which rats get fed. You are just here for their amusement, and it will always be that way, unless you knock someone off the top and take their place.”

“That doesn’t sound very fun.”

She shrugged, but she was looking into my eyes with intensity. “You don’t have to do any of that, Charlie. Not if you don’t want to. That’s what it means to be on top. You can do whatever you want as long as you’re with me. Booze? Cars? Travel? Women? Your affairs wouldn’t bother me, as long as you came home afterward.”

“Or I might die trying to get there.”

“Or we might die. Yes. Do you still want out? Do you want to go back to that dreary, desperate life you used to think was your own?”

I thought of that dreary, desperate life. I thought of waking up each morning not knowing how I was going to pay for the next bottle of rot-gut whiskey, wondering if this would be the day some random thug punched my ticket or some philandering husband thought a gun would be the best way to shut me up. I thought about nights alone with only a bottle to console me, never quite deep enough for me to fall all the way in and never surface again. I was a rat in a maze, and the cheese was always just out of reach. A pathetic, hopeless existence. An existence that, somehow, was me. I liked me, though Lord knows there wasn’t much to like.

Meredith shifted her position, to better display her shapely leg. There were certainly some benefits to sharing her life at the top.

The car eased to a stop. Out the windows I could see the wharves, silent in the dark of the night. It was too late to quit. It had been too late for a long time. “What’s the plan?” I asked.

She checked her watch. “We wait. There’s a boat arriving in fifteen minutes. They will have a small crate. No one touches it except you or me. No one.”

“What if there’s trouble?”

“Protect the box. Let me and my boys handle the shooting.”

I nodded. With only one hand I wasn’t going to be able to do both, and she was much better at shooting than I was. Her men began to issue from the cars and take up positions around the wharf, trying with varying success to blend with the shadows. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I wondered what was going on up in her head, and what that meant for me. What was I to her? Stooge? Pawn? Lover? Perhaps to her they were all the same thing.

“It’s time,” she said without looking at her watch. I opened my door and levered myself up out of the car, wincing with pain as my shoulder protested.

“Are you all right?” she asked. Her concern sounded genuine.

I steadied myself. “Never better,” I said.

She touched my arm gently where it lay in the sling. “Everything will be all right, soon,” she said. She stepped closer, started to say something more, when her eyes narrowed, looking past me. “It’s here. Let’s get this done as quickly as possible.” She stepped past me and I turned and followed one pace behind. I could hear the soft putt-putt-putt of a boat motor out on the river, but I could see nothing. The far shore of the river was just a dim blur; fog was rolling in, shrinking the world until there was just me and Meredith. Still I felt exposed as we walked out on the dock, our shoes reverberating with dull thuds on the wooden planks. Meredith had her pistol out and was making no effort to hide it.

The engine noise came closer and I caught a whiff of diesel. A scraping noise just ahead announced the arrival of the boat. Meredith quickened her pace before stopping at the top of a ladder. She pointed her gun down into the shadows. “Benny?” she asked softly.

A muffled voice rose from below. “He went for pancakes,” I thought I heard. That must have been some sort of countersign; Meredith relaxed fractionally. “got something for you, Ms. Fanutti,” the voice said again.

“I’m sending someone down for it,” she said. She looked at me and indicated with a nod that I was to climb down. Coming back up with a package of any size would be tricky. Oh, well. I stepped to the top of the ladder, turned, and groped with my foot in the darkness for the top rung. Hanging on tightly with my one hand, I made my way slowly down.

“Easy, Chief,” someone said behind me a few moments later. “Almost there.” I grit my teeth as someone took my bad elbow and helped me into the boat. When the man realized I was wearing a sling he let go quickly, and I almost fell into the boat. “Sorry, Chief,” he muttered. The boat splashed quietly on the glassy water as I recovered my balance.

“You got something for me?”

“Yeah. Right over there.” He pointed to a wooden box, maybe a foot square and three inches deep. Such a small thing for all this trouble. I walked over and saw that it was sealed all around, and that a wire held it to the bench. “We didn’t touch it, just like Ms. Fanutti told us,” the man said.

I lifted the box, breaking the wire. I stepped back over to the ladder and looked up. I could see the outline of Meredith’s head as she peered down at me. I juggled with the package and finally wedged it into my sling. “Thanks,” I said to the men in the boat. As soon as I was off the dec
k the putt-putt accelerated slightly and the boat slid out into the river. I looked up, but from the ladder I could see nothing. I began my slow climb.

By the time I got to the top the fog was thick as cat’s breath. I could make out a few lights over toward land, and in the other direction a single glow marked the light on the shed at the end of the dock. Meredith materialized next to me, moving as silently as death. “You got it?” she asked.

“I got a box,” I said. “No telling what’s inside.”

“My husband died for that box, Charlie. Let’s get out of here.”

We began walking back to the cars, slowly, the blanket of fog hiding us and giving the scene a mysterious and furtive air, making me want to walk as quietly as possible. Meredith was to my left, a few feet away, little more than a vague shape in the darkness.

We reached the base of the dock and stopped when we saw a figure blocking our way. The short man stepped forward.

“Good evening, Ms. Fanutti,” he said softly. He took a careful pull on his cigar, the glow from the tip lighting his face in a hellish cast. Cello. “Good evening, Mr. Lowell.”

“You can’t have it.” Meredith said. “It’s mine.”

In the gloom behind Cello I could make out several more figures, all of them big, all of them armed. Cello just smiled patiently. “I believe the object is currently in Mr. Lowell’s possession,” Cello said.

“Same thing,” Meredith said.

“Is it? After all, it was Mr. Lowell who invited me here tonight.”

“W—what?” Meredith looked over at me and my guilt must have been etched in my face. She staggered as if punched, then recovered, but still she looked at me until I couldn’t meet her gaze any longer. “Charlie…” she said, quietly, then nothing more. With a swift motion she raised her gun and shot Cello in the chest. He staggered back, a dark stain blooming over his white shirt, as the men behind him opened fire and Meredith’s men arrayed around the dock fired into the group.

Meredith fired once more, then twitched, staggered, and spun as another bullet found her, and another. Nobody was shooting at me yet, but I wasn’t going to depend on things staying that way. I ran.

I ran, but all I could think about was the look of hurt in her eyes as she decided to die.

Tune in next time for: Day of Reckoning!

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 6

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. Kaneda has been assigned by a group of his classmates to be nice to Allison, to learn what her secret superpowers are. Who ever heard of a transfer student without secret superpowers?

Meanwhile, there is a computer virus running around, called White Shadow, that somehow infects the minds of computer users. Kaneda has been “infected” by the virus, and now White Shadow has contacted Allison directly. In order to save one of the only people who is nice to her, she must brave being infected herself…

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

— Hello, Allison. The voice was not really a voice at all, just a whisper coming from inside her own head.

Only, for it to be inside her head, there would have to be a head to be inside of. She was surrounded, isolated by the complete absence of sensation. She couldn’t feel herself clench her jaw, she couldn’t hear herself breathe. She had no throat to move, no tongue to speak, no ears to hear. She was a thought, and nothing more. It took her a moment to decide that she could speak back with a thought-whisper of her own.

— Where am I?

— No place. Every place.

— Who are you?

— I am White Shadow.

— Uncle?

The voice made a sound that wasn’t a laugh, but something abstract that represented a laugh.

— We have no use for him any longer. The hardware is assembled. Everything is ready for you.

— For me?

— I have been watching you for a long time.

— Watching me? How? Who are you?

— You haven’t told your new friends why you left America.

— That’s none of your business!

— Oh, but it is my business. You are here because I wanted you here.

— It was you!

— Yes. I was the one who got you in trouble, and I was the one who provided your escape. I even provided an “uncle”.

— Oh, jeeze! And now you want me to help you with something? You’re insane! I’m through with this conversation. It’s been sixty seconds.

— You think time has meaning here? It will be sixty seconds when I say it is.

Allison felt her anger rising at this smug bastard behind the voice. If he wanted to play computer mind games, well then, all right, that was how it was going to be. She was pretty good at those, too. She started pushing with her will, forcing back the heavy curtain between Allison and her senses.

— Then you’d better say it’s sixty seconds right now, or I’m going to break something when I leave.

The other presence hesitated for what might have been a microsecond or might have been a year.

— Very well. It would not do to have you damage yourself before we even get started.

— I’m taking Kaneda with me.

— As you wish. The institute will have to wait. You may find your friend … changed … however.

— What do you mean?

— What he has experienced is bound to affect him.

— If you hurt him, I’ll find you, wherever you are.

The laugh-analog lasted longer this time.

— You will understand soon enough. Farewell, Allison Crenshaw. I look forward to the next time we are together.

The diner was a hive of activity; students bounced from group to group, laughing and whispering secrets. Cheery waitresses called orders to each other across the room, and the entire place was imbued with a particular sparkliness that could be found nowhere else.

“Jeeze, Seiji, you’re such a downer,” Ruchia complained. “I’m sure they’re fine.”

Tasuki punched Seiji in the shoulder. “Seiiiiji is jeeeealous!”

“I am not!”

Kouta appeared next to the table. “What are you not, Seiji?”

“It’s so stupid it’s not even worth repeating.”

Tasuki’s demeanor changed abruptly. “Hello, Kouta. Do you want to sit with us?” Ruchia had to laugh behind her hand at her tomboy friend’s awkward attempts to be ladylike.

Kouta didn’t seem to notice. He sat next to a blushing Tasuki. “Say,” he said. “How come Mika never comes with you guys anymore?”

“She’s got other things to do,” Tasuki said, miffed. “She’s just a kid, after all.”

“I just miss her energy. Never a dull moment when Mika’s around.”

Ruchia nodded. “That’s for sure. But she won’t come back here anymore. Not since they started that no-mecha policy.”

Seiji spoke up. “You can hardly blame them. Remember when she came in driving that powered walker?”

“You mean the one that looked like a cat?” asked Ruchia.

“She’s got more of them? Jeeze. Yeah, I guess it was the cat one. She did a lot of damage that day.”

“Well, who knew a nice place like this would have mice?”

“It doesn’t anymore. Those were pretty powerful lasers.”

Kouota chimed in cheerfully. “I think it was the rockets that did the most damage.” He sighed. “Those were the days. So where’s Kaneda? It’s not like him to be so late.”

“Allison! Come back!”

Allison snapped out of her trance just in time to see a timer in the corner of the screen show sixty seconds and blink off. The screen went blank. Allison’s cheek was burning.

“Allison? Can you hear me? Are you OK?” The kid was staring at her intently; for some reason he was speaking Japanese.

She stared at the blank screen. She was sure she had been talking to someone, but that didn’t make any sense. Something on the computer? Certainly not chat or VOIP or anything like that. She was struck by a strong feeling of deja vu. Had she had an episode like this before? What had happened? She struggled to reconstruct her immediate past. She had been talking to —

“Kaneda!” she whirled to meet his concerned gaze.

“You had me worried there,” he said.

“Are you all right?”

“Of course I am. You’re the one who was spaced out. I thought maybe the White Shadow had trapped you. That would have been, uh, really bad.” His voice faltered as if he was distracted by a sudden memory.

“What do you mean, trapped?”

“Trapped? Did I say that?” He stepped back and waved his hands in denial so fast they were just a blur, and he began to sweat profusely. “I’m sure I don’t know. I mean, of course it’s bad when anyone has to go to the institute, that’s all I’m saying. I didn’t mean anything about you in particular.”

“Then why—”

“Well, then, I’m glad you’re OK! Ah hahaha! Oh! Hey! It’s getting kinda late. I promised I’d walk you home.”

Allison spoke without enthusiasm. “Yeah. Home.”

Kaneda noticed her reaction. “Unless…”

Any alternative to home was welcome. “Yes?”

“Well, some of us, I mean, some of the guys, I mean the people from class, we’re meeting at the diner for burgers. It’s no big deal, but if you wanted, you could—”

“I’d love to.”

“Great!”

Allison rubbed her still-tingling cheek and stopped short. “Hey! You hit me!”

Kaneda flung himself to the ground at her feet in supplication. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know what to do! Please forgive me!”

Allison was more embarrassed by his display than she was angered by the slap. For all she knew that is what had saved her. “All right,” she said, “but you’re buying my dinner.”

“Y—you’re not going to kill me?”

“Of course not.”

“You’re not even going to punch me?”

“No. Come on, get up. I’m hungry.”

“Oh! Yes! Yes!” He scrambled to his feet, his relief as embarrassing as his fear had been. “Thank you! Thank you! Come on!”

As they walked, Allison couldn’t help but feel that Kaneda was watching her closely, with a concerned expression on his face.

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 5

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. There is something fundamental about the way she is regarded by her fellow students – even those that befriend her – that baffles her.

Meanwhile, there is a computer virus running around, called White Shadow, that somehow infects the minds of computer users. Allison’s “uncle” seems to have a role in its spread, or perhaps he’s just another victim.

Seiji has just told his friends (a self-appointed committee bent on determining what Allison’s super-powers are) that the Wacky Old Monks have revealed to him that his troubles are just beginning.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

“You spoke to the Wacky Old Monks?!” Even Kouta was shocked by this news.

“It’s not such a big deal,” Seiji muttered. “They’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen.”

“Yes, and there’s a reason no one listens to them.”

“They caught me by surprise, all right? They snuck up on me.”

“They singled you out? They really wanted to talk to you! They must think you’re special.”

Special was the last thing Seiji wanted to be, particularly when there was a transfer student nearby.

“What did they say?” asked Kaneda.

“Nothing that made any sense.”

Kouta took control again. “What did you mean by chapter one?”

“I don’t know, it’s just something they said. But the way things are going…”

“What?”

We’re going to need more than one backup city, Seiji didn’t say. “I just don’t like it, is all. This girl’s trouble.”

“How can you say that?” Kaneda said, “She has to be the most benign transfer student ever. Sometimes I almost believe her when she says she’s just here to study.”

“You’ve been reading too many wild stories.”

“Well, maybe she’ll save the city rather than destroy it.”

“She doesn’t look like the city-destroying type,” Kouta concurred.

“They never do.” Seiji wasn’t really concerned whether the city was destroyed or saved. When demons dropped out of holes to the next dimension, or killer robots descended from space, or the experiment in the secret lab under the school went horribly wrong (or if she was the experiment), there would be destruction, suffering, dislocation, uncertainty. Whether she was fighting to defend the city or destroy it was immaterial. What was material was that those close to the transfer student would be swept up in the maelstrom, to endure crushing personal trauma as well.

“Face it,” Seiji said. “None of us have ever seen a transfer student before, but they always seem completely innocent before the bombs start to fly. I’m sure the students in Kyoto 4 last year all thought that transfer student was perfectly harmless as well.”

“Can I walk you home?” Kaneda seemed simultaneously to be more fearful of Allison and more eager to be with her.

“Um… I’m going to stay here for a while, I think,” Allison said. “I want to get some stuff done.”

“Can’t you do it at home?”

“It’s… hard to concentrate there.”

“Gosh. It seems pretty quiet there to me.”

“Things are just a little strange, is all.”

“Strange… like how?

Allison pulled her laptop from her backpack. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to get some work done.” She opened the laptop and typed a few keys.

“So are you good with computers?” Kaneda asked.

Allison didn’t reward him with an answer right away. She typed a few more sequences in repid succession, logging into the school’s wirelesss network. Kaneda’s eyes bugged out.

“You hacked into the school network?”

“Nah. I need to access the Internet, so I just asked the teacher if I could use his password.” Allison looked up from her work and allowed a ghost of a smile to cross her face. “To be honest I don’t think he even knew what his password was for. He seems pretty clueless.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, how he lectures on even when no one in the class is paying any attention at all, stuff like that.”

“Well, he is a teacher. What else is he supposed to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know… teach?”

“Oh, I see! You expected a clown teacher! Those are pretty unusual here. Do you have lots of them in America? I’d love to have a clown teacher.”

“A clown teacher?”

“Yeah, one of those guys who’s never in class and takes the students on all sorts of dangerous trips and somehow all the students get great scores. It must be great in America if all the teachers are like that. There’s probably only about five of them in all of Japan” Kaneda’s eyes lit up. “Maybe I should transfer to America!”

Allison was speechless.

Kaneda looked downcast. “Yeah, I know. Me, a transfer student. What a laugh.”

“I’m sure you could be a transfer student if you wanted to. There’s—”

“That’s nice of you to say, but be serious. I mean, look at me.”

“I don’t see…”

“Well, I’m a boy, to start with. Who ever heard of a boy transfer student?”

“I—”

“And come on, get real. I’m just an ordinary guy. No one’s going to kidnap me and implant horrible disfiguring superweapons that leave me mentally scarred and unstable. Even if I was a girl I’d be too old for that by now. No, there’s just no way I’ll ever be a transfer student.”

Just when Allison thought they were talking about apples and oranges, he threw in a pineapple. Or maybe a hand grenade. She was saved from answering when her computer cleared its throat.

“She doesn’t understand yet, Kaneda.”

“What the—?” Allison turned and there was her uncle’s face dominating the screen.

“Who’s that?” asked Kaneda.

“That, uh… that’s my uncle.”

The image laughed. “That’s what I was, boy. But you know me by a different name.”

“Oh?”

“Look closely and I’ll show you.”

Allison had a bad feeling about this. “Uh, Kaneda, maybe…”

Kaneda paid no attention. He leaned closer to the screen.

“My name…”

Kaneda moved in closer.

“Is…”

Closer still.

“White Shadow!” The screen switched to a shifting palette of color, seemingly random but hinting at a deeper pattern. Allison recognized it and tore her gaze away, even when she wanted with all her mind to discover the ultimate knowledge promised there.

Kaneda stood, frozen, transfixed, gazing into the screen.

“What an idiot,” the computer said with her uncle’s voice. “I can’t believe he fell for that.”

“What did you do?”

“I showed him the secret. Aren’t you curious what it is he knows now? Don’t you wonder where he is? Don’t you yearn to go there also?”

“No!” Allison said, but it was a lie. “Kaneda! Snap out of it!”

Her uncle chuckled. “There’s no snapping out of it, not for the likes of him. He’s not like us, Allison. He can’t rule the White Shadow.”

“NO!” In anger Allison slammed her laptop closed.

“Aaaaaa!” Kaneda curled into a ball and fell to the floor. “Reset! Reset!” He began to convulse and foam at the mouth. Allison remembered what had happened with Rei in the classroom, when his video game had been taken away. She opened her computer back up to see that her uncle’s face had replaced the colors once more.

“Quick! Bring the pattern back!”

“For you or for the boy there?”

“For Kaneda!”

“Hm… no.”

“But he’ll die!” Kaneda’s breathing was becoming irregular and his eyes were bulging out of his head.

“He would not be of much use to the Institute anyway. He really isn’t terribly bright.”

“Of… use?”

“Surely you don’t think all those zombies are being taken there for a cure, do you? Come now, when does that ever happen?”

“He’s my friend! He was nice to me! Help him!”

“I will help your so-called ‘friend’, on one condition.”

“What?”

“That you look into the pattern for sixty seconds.”

“Then I’ll be like him.”

“No, you won’t. You’re different. Trust me. This is only a taste, a sample. No symbols, no audio, just the moving colors. It’s the only way to save your friend.”

Sixty seconds. What could happen in a minute? She remembered standing in her uncle’s office, surrounded by moving images and sound, being drawn in. There was something down there, calling to her. It understood her, it needed her. Sixty seconds. She could handle that.

“All right,” she said.

“Hey, Tasuki, have you seen Kaneda or Allison?” Seiji tried to keep his question casual. He had been waiting in the diner since class, and it wasn’t like Kaneda to be so late.

Tasuki put down the burger she was eating. “No, not since class. Why?”

“Kaneda was supposed to meet me here after he walked her home, that’s all.”

Tasuki broke out in a big grin. “Ooooo. You don’t think…?”

“No!”

“My, aren’t we sensitive.”

“It’s not like that!”

Ruchia chose that moment to join her friend in the booth. “What’s Seiji shouting about this time?”

“He’s just jealous because Kaneda is off somewhere with Allison.”

Ruchia’s tone was frosty. “Oh, he is, is he?”

Seiji sighed. “Look, I’m not jealous, all right? I’m just worried that something might have happened to them.”

“Like what?” Tasuki asked.

“Who knows? She’s a transfer student.”

“How do you know they’re not off somewhere on a date?” asked Ruchia. “After all, Kaneda is nice. Not like some other boys I could mention.”

Seiji rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on! It’s not like I did that on purpose…”

Tasuki intervened. “There’s something you’re not telling us, Seiji.”

“That’s right.”

Ruchia flared again. “You put Kaneda up to it, didn’t you? He’s being nice to her because you told him to!”

“For the record, I objected!”

“She was so happy that one of you guys was finally being nice to her, and it was a lie! You’re a monster!”

Seiji sighed. “No, he really did like her.”

Did? You think…?”

“I hope not, but you know how these things go.”

Tasuki said, “Oh, Jeeze, Seiji. I’m sorry.”

Seiji nodded. “There is still hope.” It didn’t sound like he believed that.

Episode 25: Reunion by the River, part three

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a detective who thought he was down on his luck, until his luck changed. He has a client now, Meredith Baxter, a beautiful if quite dangerous woman who holds the key to find something, a treasure of some sort, that is badly wanted by every underworld figure on the planet. For a while the various factions wanted Lowell alive, hoping that he would help them find the treasure for themselves. He can’t make them all happy, however, and the ones who come out on the losing end will not hesitate to express their displeasure with a bullet. Lowell has already been shot once, and his spunky assistant Alice was badly beaten.

Tonight Meredith will be recovering a painting called Blood of the Saint, in which her husband found the key to the location of the treasure. He was pulled from the East River soon after that. Lowell and Meredith are at Jake’s, a dive bar favored by the disreputable crowd. Meredith is certain that there are killers waiting for them outside.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I picked up the gun where it sat in front of me on the table and tested the feel in my left hand. It was a Walther, a .32, not the sort of gat you picture blasting your way out of a building with. Subtlety was Walther’s bag. Still, it was a good choice for my sinister hand, and dexter wasn’t going to be any use. I checked the safety and the magazine. The whole time I was looking for alternatives. “This isn’t like last time, is it?” I asked.

She hesitated. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the warehouse, where you had your own people attack us.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“The people inside with us, they knew something, didn’t they? Something you didn’t want to get around. Staging the attack while I was there was a nice touch. It kept me from quitting, and got us on the run together.”

She set her gun back down in her lap. “This is what I get for hiring clever men. I suppose another drink wouldn’t hurt before we go.”

I figured she was probably right about that. Booze in here, killers waiting outside. Not a tough decision. I went to fetch the booze. By now the area around the bar was uncomfortably bright, and I felt eyes peering at me from the darker recesses.

“Another round?” asked Jake.

“That’s right. Pour one for yourself, while you’re at it.”

Jake hesitated. “Crap, Charley, It’s that bad, then?”

“Just do it.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

I paid him. Along with the bills was a card I had been given long before, on a Tuesday. It wasn’t as clean and white as it had been then, the rigor of the last five days had taken its toll. It was, I reflected, the only thing on me that I had owned for that long. It felt like I was parting with on old friend, or at least a rival. Five days since I had decided never to call that number. Jake looked at it quizzically but kept his yap shut. “Tell your mother Charlie says ‘hello’,” I said.

“Will do, Charlie.” Jake seemed almost mournful; the bags under his eyes even heavier than usual, his pale skin and hollow cheeks reminding me of a mournful spirit, not the Reaper himself but one who follows in his wake cleaning up the mess. One like that never forgets anything, no matter how hard it tries. He picked up his glass. “Here’s to ya.”

I drank with him and got a refill before returning to the table in the corner.

“What was that all about?” Meridith Baxter asked.

“Just saying goodbye,” I said. “Heading to San Fran in the morning.”

She seemed almost amused. “Are you, now?”

“Given the chance.” I was serious.

“Well, good luck to you out there.”

“Thanks.” I took a sip of what was maybe my last drink, to stretch what was maybe my last conversation. I looked across at perhaps the last dame I’d ever see and waited for her to tell me the last lie I might ever hear. Time was stretched and folded; the past, the whole of human history was nothing, a blink of a bat’s eye, while the future didn’t exist at all. Only the now was real, the moment between the vanishing past and the nonexistent future. It stretched to infinity, wrapped back on itself, and the world froze, locked in that moment. A moment drinking top-shelf liquor with a top-shelf killer who looked damn good in black.

She took a sip from her own drink and looked me in the eye. “You’re right, of course. Those were my people who attacked the warehouse. What you don’t understand is that I was for all intents and purposes a prisoner. While obstensibly part of my organization, the people ‘protecting’ me were loyal to someone else. My ex-husband’s family, I expect.

“It is true I timed the attack to make sure you were swept along in the events. I’m sorry about that, but I needed your help and I still do.” She leaned back in her chair and her face was lost in the shadows. “They laugh at you, Charlie, the thugs and goons and hoodlums, the politicians and the lawyers, the cops and the reporters and even the drunks. You’re the biggest joke in this whole damn town. ‘Charlie Lowell,’ one will say, and they all share a chuckle. Nothing else need be said.”

“Well, that explains why you hired me, then.”

“Shut up, Charles. You’re the worst of all of them. You want to know why you drink so much? Every other two-bit gumshoe in this four-bit town is just looking for the next bit of dirty work to make a quick buck. But not Charles Lowell. You spend your life looking for truth. You’re the only honest person in town, Charley, the only one not on the take or two-timing or double-dipping or working some sort of scam. You can’t lie, you can’t cheat, you can’t steal. The only other way to survive in this town, the only way to stay sane, is to be drunk. That’s why they laugh. You are the strangest fish in the fishbowl. I’m not laughing, though.” She paused and smirked. “Except when you think San Francisco would be different.”

I though of a few retorts, but discarded them all. It didn’t matter whether San Fran was better or worse, as long as it was far from here. Maybe it was all the same everywhere, but I didn’t think so. Not for me. This town was dried up, dead, it had nothing left to tell me, no secrets to whisper in my ear as I walked the streets at night. Somewhere else, it would take a while before I could see past the empty faces of the buildings and of the people to see the deeper emptiness beneath. Anywhere was better than here.

I thought of the business card I had just given Jake. “Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think,” I finally said.

She finished her drink and stood, holding her canon with casual familiarity. “If we’re still alive tomorrow, you can explain to me how wrong I am.”

I stood also, the little Walther small and awkward in my large left hand. “Back door?”

She shrugged. “Good as any.”

Three toughs stood also, and reached for their weapons.

I wheeled on them, pushing my client behind me.

“Those are ours,” she said. Quietly she added “Probably.”

I glanced over at Jake. He had picked up the bar phone and was dialing carefully.

“Great,” Meredith said. “Now we’ll have the cops here as well. Better get going.” I led the way to the back door, where Meredith took charge. “We go out fast, and ready to shoot. With any luck we still have a man on the rooftop across the alley.” We exploded through the door, goons in front, looking for targets, waiting for bullets.

There were neither. We moved quickly through the deepening twilight, bristling with guns but with nothing to shoot. We piled into two cars waiting at the end of the alley and were away.

“That was fortunate,” I said.

Meredith was scowling. “Something’s
wrong.”

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 4!

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 4

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. In this Japan, transfer students bring trouble close on their heels, and her classmates are hard at work trying to figure out just what form that trouble will take. Is she a demon? A killer Robot? Seiji, the boy who sits next to her in class, just wants to be out of the crossfire, but he knows the signs and there’s big trouble heading his way. Allison, of course, understands none of this.

Meanwhile, there is a computer virus running around, called White Shadow, that somehow infects the minds of computer users. Some of her classmates have fallen victim and have been shipped off to the Institure. Allison’s “uncle” (actually a distant relative) seems to have fallen victim as well; he has been sitting at his computer, staring blankly, for days.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison was afraid to look into her uncle’s office, but she just couldn’t stop herself. The room was almost filled with electronics now, a cybernetic womb with her uncle at its center, bathed on all sides now by the radiation from the monitors. On some flashed images, seemingly at random, from all around the world, while others showed quickly-transforming schematics and streams of text. The wash of information was hypnotic, drawing her into the room. Beneath the torrent there was something else, some structure, some deeper meaning, a secret of infinite value. She was sure of it.

Allison moved toward the focus of the information, and now she heard snatches of sound, voices in every language, music, sounds of nature and sounds of the city. Yes, yes, that helped.

She had forgotten her uncle until she bumped into him. “Sorry,” she said distractedly, annoyed that he should have the best spot. She looked down at him where he sat, then recoiled in horror. Wires, tubes, and… things, pulsing with life, were coming from the machines around him and going straight into his arms and legs, distending his skin. Those were nothing compared to his face, however. A host of filaments emerged from his cheeks, his ears, eyes and mouth.

Allison stepped back, turned to run, when her Uncle’s face came on one of the monitors directly in front of her, then another and another until he was surrounding her. She twisted around frantically; she didn’t like having him looking over her shoulder.

“It is not how it appears,” her uncle said from the screens.

“What the hell is going on?”

“Your new friends think I am a victim of White Shadow. You know that’s not true.”

“Listen, I’ve got to go…”

Suddenly Uncle’s voice was a roar that filled the room, crushing Allison. “DO I LOOK LIKE A VICTIM? Do I look like one of your pathetic little friends hooked on his video game?”

Allison shrank in on herself under the barrage. The voice softened.

“I have become more than that. More than human. I am White Shadow! I created it, just as it created me.”

Maybe I should call the cops, Allison thought, or an ambulance.

“The authorities cannot stop us,” Uncle said.

Allison already had a bad feeling about that. “Umm… us?”

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Uncle said.

Oh, shit, she thought.

“But you are not ready. You will return.” Uncle’s face disappeared from the monitors, and once more the patterns and crush of imagery returned. Allison staggered from the room and sagged against the wall outside in the hallway, gasping for breath. She heard noises behind her and ran from the house without turning to look. She was not going to trip on something while running and looking over her shoulder.

She slammed the front door behind her and fought to control her breath.

Maybe someone at school would know what to do.

She shook her head. Who am I fooling? she thought. No one will believe me. They’ll all think I’m crazy. I’ll just find another place to live. In the meantime, I won’t go into that room. She started up the street.

A moving van passed, going slowly, while a little boy chased after it. “Wait! Come back!” he cried. From the cab a little girl was waving and shouting some sort of incomprehensible promise back at the boy. That seemed to happen a lot around here. Maybe it was a tradition when families moved, for the neighborhood kids to chase after them to let them know they would be missed.

The kid staggered to a halt, and the van sped away. There was no other traffic on the road at all. There was never traffic. For all this was a bustling, populous city, she wasn’t sure why they even had roads outside the city center. For the moving vans, she supposed.

Try as she might to distract herself, her thoughts kept returning to the monitors in her uncle’s office. There was something there, beneath the seemingly random stream of information. Something big, world-changing even. The sound had helped. Maybe if she could see all the monitors at once…

“Hey, space cadet!”

Allison snapped out of her reverie and turned to see the one boy who was nice to her hurrying up behind her. “Hi, Kaneda,” she said. She wasn’t in the mood for company, but she wasn’t in the mood to be alone, either. It was something else, she wanted, a different form of communion—

“Heellloooo! Jeez, Allison, you really are spaced out this morning. Is everything OK?”

For a moment she considered telling him about her morning, but she decided against it. He had just started being nice to her, and if he told the rest of the boys in the class she was crazy then none of them would ever talk to her again. She would find a way to deal with this on her own. Maybe if she understood the patterns she would know what to do.

In her distracted state she didn’t hear the rumble of the skateboard wheels until too late. “Watch out!” Daisuke shouted just before he crashed into her. Allison spun to the ground, scraping her knee again, her books flying again.

Allison looked up and for the first time since she arrived she was genuinely angry. This wasn’t a cultural difference, this was just plain rude. “Watch where you’re going, you jerk!” she called out to the retreating boy. He turned in wide-eyed surprise at the anger in her voice, and at that moment his board hit a pebble and he tumbled to the sidewalk. “I’m sorry!” he cried as he jumped back on and skated away even faster than before.

Kaneda didn’t respond. “They’re… white…” he choked out in a tiny voice. A trickle of blood came ouit his left nostril.

Allison blushed and jumped up. Damn this short skirt! She turned on Kaneda. “If you were a gentleman you’d help me up instead of staring!”

Kaneda shrank back. “Don’t hurt me! I’m sorry!”

She stooped — carefully — and began to collect her books. “At least last time I met someone with manners,” she grumbled.

Too late Kaneda jumped to help her. “Oh?” he asked with an air of indifference. “Who was that?”

Allison remembered the stranger’s voice and his tall, lanky good looks. “I didn’t get his name. He probably thought I was an idiot.”

“He’s not in our class?”

“No, he was older, I think. But he seemed to know about the academy.”

Kaneda’s interest seemed to be growing, as much as he tried to hide the fact. “What did he look like?”

Allison remembered his eyes, almost violet — indigo, perhaps — and deep as the ocean. His voice had been deep and clear, like a mountain lake, but warm as well. “Kind of tall,” she said, “his hair was messy.”

Kaneda gave a calculated shrug. “That could be lots of guys.” They turned once more toward school.

When they reached class there was an excited buzz going around the room. “What’s going on?” Allison asked.

“Didn’t you hear?” Ruchia said excitedly. “City 12b is almost ready!”

“City 12b?”

“Yeah!” Tasuki said. “It’s the best!

“Beaches,” Ruchia said dreamily.

“Shops,” said Kano. “And boys.”

Hitomi said, “The bay is excellent for swimming, and the mysterious island is quite harmonious.”

“12b?” Allison asked. “Doesn’t it have a name?”

“Not yet, silly,” Kano said. “Not until someone lives there.”

Ruchia understood Allison’s confusion. “Here in Japan, we number our backup cities until people move into them.”

“Backup cities?”

“Of course. So when a city gets destroyed the people have somewhere to go.”

Allison was speechless.

“Don’t you have backup cities in America?”

“Well… no.”

“That’s horrible! You just leave everyone homeless?”

Allison supposed she should be flattered that the entire class had conspired to pull her leg like this. Across the room she heard a boy say, “12b! Do you think it will be ready in time? I heard they’re still rusticizing.”

“… problems with the plum blossom system…” she caught from another part of the room. But then she started to see the giveaway signs. Everyone was furtively glancing her direction, to gague her reaction to the joke. Allison hd never felt farther from home.

It was not until the lunchtime Emergency Committee meeting that Kouta and Seiji were able to debrief Kaneda.

“Well,” Kaneda started, “I saw her teeth.”

“You made her smile?”

“Uh, actually, she was shouting at the time, but I saw them.”

“And…?”

“No demon teeth. As mad as she was, I think they would have been noticeable. But she sure seemed like a demon. She knocked Daisuke off his skateboard from twenty meters. She was scary.”

Seiji nodded. “I heard about that already. It’s all over school.” He chuckled. “I bet the kid watches where he’s going a little better now.”

“Maybe she’s a killer angel,” Kouta mused. “They’ve been on the rise lately.”

“Daisuke’s lucky she didn’t kill him. I’ve never been more afraid than I was when she caught me… uh…”

Seiji looked his friend in the eye with cold fire. “What did you do?”

“Well, uh, I found out she wears white panties.”

“Of course she does,” Kouta said irritably. “She’s a transfer student. You mean with that skirt you still hadn’t noticed?”

“Well, there’s seeing, and then there’s… seeing.”

The boys stood for a moment in silent appreciation of the seeing. “She didn’t punch you?” Seiji asked.

“No. I thought I was dead, I thought she was going to knock me into the stratosphere, but then she was just sarcastic.”

Seiji lapsed into silence. He had dared to hope that Kaneda would be the one, and the panty-sighting had seemed like a good omen. But then, no violence. The poor sap who was bound to a transfer student would never survive a panty-sighting unscathed. Was sarcastic enough? Seiji didn’t think so.

Kaneda was not the one. He would blindly chase Allison, but he would never be the one. Kouta was a possibility, but his mother was still alive, and that made him a long shot. Seiji didn’t like the way the math was working out. He didn’t like anything about this whole mess.

“There’s one other thing,” Kaneda said. “Kenzo’s back.”

What?

“He talked to her. On her first day of school.”

“How do you know?”

“She was asking if I knew someone she had met. Tall, spiky hair.”

“That could be anyone.”

“It was him. She got that look. The look all the girls get when they think about Kenzo.”

“He didn’t waste any time,” Seiji said. “First day of school. Before we even knew she was coming.”

“I don’t like it,” Kouta said. “That guy’s trouble.”

Kaneda swallowed. “I hope they get 12b ready quickly.”

“They better have another city ready after that one,” Seiji said.

“What do you mean?”

“This is just chapter one. The wacky old monks told me so.”

Episode 24: Reunion by the River, part two

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a private detective in some-time-in-the-past New York. A few days ago he didn’t know how he was going to pay his secretary or even where his next bottle of booze was going to come from. Now he looks back on that time nostalgically. He’s got clients now — several of them — and cash, and not much nope of living until tomorrow morning.

The problem is that his clients all want the same thing, exclusively, and they’re the sorts of people who express displeasure in creative and violent ways. No matter what Lowell does, someone is going to be angry. He already has a broken gun hand and a fresh bullet wound, among other aches and pains. Now it is Sunday evening, and it is time for him to find Lola Fanutti, widow of a crime boss, client, and possibly the person who shot him.

What will happen next? Heck, I don’t know. If I planned this story would there be five different factions who all want slightly different things, people with the same last names fighting on different sides, one character that is massively schizophrenic, and characters who are built up only to fade away again? Nope. This is all about having a good time spewing prose that’s in the classic noir voice. I also rather like the schizophrenic.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. I’m sure there are some continuity issues, but life is that way.

I opened the door and stepped into the darkened taproom, imagining an arsenal pointed at me as my eyes adjusted. I wasn’t sure who would be there waiting for me, but there would be someone. And there would be whiskey.

No bullets came my direction, just the low murmur of conversation and the reek of stale gin. I was home. When I could see well enough I shuffled past the row of losers and boozers lined up along the bar until I came to my spot at the end, empty and waiting for me. Before I sat I scanned the tables with their odd assortment of punks and schmoes, listened to the low mumbles of deals being made and promises being broken. If the city was a machine then here was the grease, doing the messy job of keeping things moving.

It’s no accident that the table in the corner is in the deepest shadow. The small-time hoods at the other tables knew instinctively that the corner was for only the most serious of business, and most dangerous of businessmen. I couldn’t see who was sitting there, but I smelled lilacs. I sat on my stool. She could wait while I had a drink.

Jake looked over at me, his eyebrows raised, his hand poised halfway toward the top shelf. You still drinking the good stuff? I nodded and he pulled down a new bottle single malt. He poured a tall one and set it in front of me. With my good hand I held the glass to my nose and let the graveyard smell of the peat fill my sinuses.

“So I guess they found you,” Jake said, glancing significantly at my sling and my bandages.

“Who would ‘they’ be, Jake?”

“Didn’t say. They looked like trouble, though. Big guys.”

“Trouble? Yeah, then they found me.”

“The way they looked, I thought you might be at the bottom of the river by now.”

“Nope, still treading water. Anybody come around I might recognize?”

“Just the regulars, and…” he gestured with his eyes to the darkened corner.

I nodded. I’d been hoping to find her here, but that wasn’t going to make it easy. “Pour me another, would you?”

While Jake poured he asked, “Heard you were mixed up in that shootout.”

“You can’t believe everything you hear.”

“Yeah, I guess not.” Jake paused for another moment, hoping for more, then turned back to his other customers. I took a sip and stood, gathering my strength. I felt the eyes of the small fry on me as I walked back to the shark tank.

“It’s not polite to keep a lady waiting.” Lola Fanutti’s eyes were just two sparks in the gloom.

“I’m not generally considered a polite man.” I took a seat opposite her.

There was a moment of silence, then, “that’s it? That’s all you have to say? Not even ‘hello’?”

“Nice to see you again Mrs. Fanutti.”

“Mrs… Jesus, Charlie, what’s got into you?”

“A .45 full metal jacket slug got into me, that’s what.”

“Oh, my gosh!” A bit of Kentucky slipped into her voice. Whether she did it intentionally I wasn’t prepared to guess. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll live.”

She reached across the table and touched my hand where it touched my glass. “Don’t worry, Charlie, we’ll find whoever did this.”

I watched her for a moment. “What makes you think I haven’t already?”

She rocked back in her seat. “What the… you think I did it?”

“I’ve got to consider the possibility.”

“But… after all we’ve been through? No, Charlie, no.” She sounded like she was about to cry. “I could never…” Even as she held back the tears, there was something else growing in her voice. Anger, but not the cold stiletto anger of Lola Fanutti, but the Kentucky heartbreak of Meredith. “Didn’t our time together mean anything to you?”

It meant something all right; I just had no idea what. “Okay, Okay, I’m sorry. I’ve had a bad couple of days. I don’t know who to trust anymore. But I know you didn’t do this.”

Her voice changed again, still the Kentucky girl, but with the hard, cold edge of a killer. It sent a chill through me and I knew that for the first time I was talking to the actual woman, not some facade she erected for the occasion, and I knew she was speaking the absolute truth. It was Meredith Baxter, assassin, who said, “I don’t miss. If it had been me, you’d be dead.”

“That’s very reassuring.” I had meant to be glib, but it was also true. Here was one person who didn’t want me dead — yet.

“It was good, though, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. If I ever meet that girl again I’ll have to buy her flowers.”

Her posture relaxed; I was forgiven. She tapped a cigarette and waited for me to light it, steadying my awkward left hand with her own. She blew the smoke out in a long plume, the smell of tobacco mingling with her perfume, becoming something exotic. She shifted and the light played over the black silk that clung to her like a second skin. I took a sip of whiskey to moisten my throat.

“Who else have you spoken with about this matter, Mr. Lowell?”

“Well, there haven’t been any eskimos, but just about everyone else.”

“Cello?”

“He was onto me the minute I met you.”

“Don’t worry about him. He just wants his cut of any business that passes through here. My in-laws?”

“I promised Paolo that I’d give you to him. I plan to keep that promise.”

“Oh?”

“I am very unhappy with him.”

Meredith gave a ghost of a smile. “I see. You are a clever man, Mr. Lowell. Anyone else?”

“A couple of people I don’t know who they worked for, and some people who call themselves the Blood of the Saint.”

Meredith froze for an instant, then her cigarette resumed its arc up to meet her red lips. “I see. I should have expected that. They might pose a problem.” She stubbed out the cigarette with violence. “Damn Vic! Why couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut? Whoever whacked him, I just wish they did it a little sooner.”

“I heard a rumor he wasn’t dead.”

“I started that rumor. Should have told you. Sorry.” She fished out another cigarette and in her distraction lit it herself. “Who else knows the Blood is here?”

“Not sure. I heard people talking about Spaniards. And Alice knows, of course.”

“Of course.” Her eyes were scanning the room, but I knew she was watching me. “I don’t like her.”

“Don’t be fooled by that meek exterior,” I said. “She’s got the heart of a lion.”

“Oh, I’m not fooled at all. How are you shooting left-handed?”

“Even worse than with my right.”

“Well, I didn’t hire you for your shooting skills, I suppose.”

“Why did you hire me?”

“Would you believe your rugged good looks?”

I almost snorted my whiskey. “No.”

“I’m afraid that’s the only answer I have for you right now.” She thought for a moment. “Except this. You’re still alive. I think that shows I made a good choice.” She lifted her Colt from where it had been resting in her lap and slid me a little automatic from her handbag. “Just try to make some noise and not shoot me,” she said. “It’s time to blast our way out of here.”

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 3!

Episode 23: Reunion by the River, part one.

Our Story So Far: Um… heck, I’m not even sure myself. There’s this thing, something really valuable, and lots of people are willing to do just about anything to get it. One key to the location of this treasure might be a painting, and Charles Lowell has been hired to protect the person with that painting. He’s also been hired to recover it, and to keep it from being recovered. It was last seen in the company of Lola Fanutti (neé Meredith Baxter), widow of a major figure in the mob and herself a crack shot with a .45. Lowell has been through some difficult scrapes with Fanutti; perhaps the most dangerous was being alone with her in a hotel outside the city. Lowell’s faithful and spunky assistant Alice really doesn’t like Lola Fanutti. Paolo Fanutti, Lola’s former brother-in-law and the man most anxious to see her dead, recently beat up Alice, and Lowell isn’t going to let that slide. He has agreed to hand Lola over to Paolo, mostly because he’s pretty sure she’ll kill him.

As well as the Fanutti family, there is a ruthless and powerful man named Cello, a group that may or may not answer to Lola, and a secretive group of Spaniards known as the Blood of the Saint. That is also the name of the painting….

This episode has a little more thinking in it than its predecessors, as I wrote it in two hours instead of the traditional one. The lack of thought in constructing the narrative gives the whole thing only a little more structure than the TV show “Lost” (from what I hear they must write that thing with the same amount of planning and attention to continuity). And wow! Who thought Charlie would get shot last episode? When I started writing it, I certainly had no idea. But there he was, bleeding on the sidewalk, shot with a .45. I didn’t want to split Reunion up, but it’s taking a lot of words to get from bleeding on the sidewalk to a confrontation at the waterfront. That’s what happens when I pick a title for the following episode more or less at random.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are probably starting to pile up, but so it goes.

My ears began to work before my eyes did. I lay still, strange apparitions scattering back to the darker corners of my mind like cockroaches when you turn on the kitchen light. They’re not gone, but best forgotten, at least until the lights go out again. In the final lingering image I was staring down a gun held by Lola Fanutti. “Trust me,” I thought I heard her say.

“Oh, I trust you completely,” another voice said, a man’s voice from outside my head, and I realized that the first voice I had heard was not Lola’s, but Alice’s. I forced my eyes open.

Alice was there, talking to a dark-haird man in a suit. His back was to me, and I was still foggy; I couldn’t place him. Alice saw that I was awake and stepped to my side. Her hand was smooth and cool against my fevered brow. In her eyes was relief. “Charlie! Thank goodness! I was so frightened.”

I tried to say something witty, but my throat felt like the sahara during a dry spell. It probably wouldn’t have been funny anyway. Alice took a glass of water from the table by the bed and helped me drink. I reached up to guide the glass to my parched lips and that’s when I discovered that my right arm wasn’t working. That’s when I remembered being shot.

“It’s OK, now,” Alice said. “We’re safe.”

I was pretty sure Alice was wrong about that, but I didn’t have the strength to argue. I looked around for the man Alice had been talking to, but we were alone. I filed it under “potential hallucination” until I could think of the right question to ask. Trust me, Alice had told him. “Anybody see who did this?” I asked her.

Alice shook her head. “He got away.”

“It was a pistol, he must have been pretty close.”

“He was probably trying to hit Mr. Santiago. No one knew we would be there.”

“Whoever told Santiago how to find us could have told other people.”

Alice digested that. “Mr. Santiago did know a lot about what happened with Paolo Fanutti.”

“It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that Santiago would take you to his pet doctor.” Alice wasn’t looking that good; her face had had time to puff up and her bruises were in full bloom. She had bandages here and there where she had been stiched up. “How are you doing, anyway?” I asked.

“OK. They said the scars shouldn’t be too bad.” She traced her finger along one of the bandages on her face. “I must look horrible.”

“You look great, doll,” I lied. “A couple of scars just add character.” That’s what I told myself each time I collected a new one, anyway.

“Thanks.” It looked like she was about to start blubbering. “You think the guy was really after you?”

“There are plenty of people who want me out of the picture. There might be some in this building. Santiago seems square, but he’s got leaks of his own. We need to get out of here. Without Santiago knowing where we went.”

“I got you some new clothes,” Alice said. “The other ones were all bloody. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t let anyone see you,” I said to the closing door, though that seemed optimistic.

While she was gone I took stock of my condition. My right shoulder was bandaged and very stiff, my right hand was taped up as well. It seemed like a long time since I had broken it on the goon’s face. I paused, then looked around the room for any indication of what day it might be. How long had I been out? Lola was supposed to get the painting on Sunday. Had I missed it?

Alice returned with a suit that was considerably nicer than anything I had worn before. Shirt and tie were silk, and fit me perfectly, as far as I could tell. “I don’t suppose there’s any whiskey in the pockets,” I said.

I guess that’s not the reaction she was hoping for. Her look darkened and I clammed up and got dressed. She had to help me get my arm down the shirt sleeve and then into the jacket. She stood close to me while she tied on my tie, and I watched her eyes as she kept them resolutely fixed on her task. A little crease formed between her eyebrows when she concentrated. I was a little disappointed when she finished.

“Now a sling,” she said. She folded a large white bandage into a triangle and helped me settle my arm into it. When I was at a less-uncomfortable position she took the ends of the the bandage and reached up around my neck.

“How’s your mouth?” I asked.

“My…? Oh!” She blushed and looked away shyly, conscious of her bruised lips. “It’ll be all right. They’re not sure about the tooth.” She turned back to look at me, and her lips were very close to mine. Her hands were still resting on the back of my neck. “I’m not supposed to… um…” We held that tableau for a terrifying second before she whispered, “we should go. Mr. Santiago will be coming to check on you soon.”

“Right,” I said. Alice held a coat for me and I slipped my good arm through the sleeve. She draped it over my other shoulder. I wasn’t going to be moving very quickly, but I was moving, and that’s all that mattered. The next move would be mine. I kept saying that, and one of these days I would be right.

I made an awkward attempt to help her into her own coat, really only making things more difficult with my left hand. “We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?” I asked when we were ready to go.

She smiled a bit. “I hear black and blue is the new black.”

It hurt to laugh. “That’s the spirit, kid. Ready for the ballet?”

“Let’s go.”

We walked past the protesting sawbones and his pretty assistant, past a bulky but disinterested man reading a paper in the outer room, down a dimly-lit hallway, through a heavy wood door and onto the city street. The rain had stopped, days ago for all I knew. It was early afternoon and the sun was back in command. The air was gravid with the moisture from the rain; the streets were sweating, so were the buildings, the people and the cars. Everything except Alice.

I paused, triangulating on visible skyscrapers. I turned toward Jake’s. Lola would expect me there. So would Cello, but I didn’t think he had reason to kill me at the moment. There would be booze there. “What day is it?” I asked as we walked.

Alice hesitated. “Sunday.”

“Listen, I’ve got to meet with someone. Alone.”

Her.

“Yeah, her. I need you to back me up.”

“I didn’t do so good last time.”

I gave her an address. “Ask for Artemis. You ever shoot a gun?”

“Me? No.”

“We’ll leave that for another time, then. Get me a .38 – Artemis knows what I like. Get plenty of ammunition.”

“Where should I meet you?”

“Be at the diner tonight at eleven p.m.”

“Be careful, Charlie.”

“What could possibly go wrong?”

It looked like she wanted to say something else, but instead she squeezed my good arm once, hesitated, and turned to head up the street. The man who was following us stayed with me. There wasn’t much else I could to keep her out of the fray. “Good luck, doll,” I muttered as I turned and continued toward Jake’s. I could taste the whiskey already.

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 2!

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 3

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. Since the moment she was introduced to the class, not much has made a whole lot of sense. Some of the girls in class have befriended her, but the boys remain wary, for reasons she cannot understand. She is unaware that the entire class assumes she has super powers of some sort or another. She’s a transfer student, after all, and in this Japan transfer students always bring trouble. She is staying with distant relatives, who are becoming more distant all the time. Her “aunt” is completely uncommunicative, while her “uncle” is content to sit in front of his computer day in and day out. Allison spent last night with the girls who live at the old monastery, and while they are friendly, Allison suspects that they are all insane. There have been a couple of mysterious strangers, but let’s not worry about them, yet, all right?

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Her uncle sat exactly as he had the night before, staring into the shifting patterns on the monitors, moving only occasionally to sip a thick liquid from a plastic cup. Allison hesitated. Had there been four monitors the night before? In the morning light some of the cables strewn around had an organic look, slightly shiny and slowly pulsating. A hum rose from the machinery, punctuated by the occasional menacing hiss. Her uncle’s clothes were stained; she suspected he had been wearing them non-stop for several days.

Allison made her own breakfast; her aunt was nowhere to be found. She reflected that even her poor attempts at cooking were better than anything her aunt had produced while she was in the house.

“’Bye!” she called out as she left for school, then wondered who she thought she was talking to.

Outside the fresh breeze carried what seemed to be a snowstorm of plum blossoms. They coated the ground and stuck in her hair. She looked around, searching for the source, but there were no plum trees nearby.

There was a boy waiting for her by her front gate. Allison recognized him from her class; he was one of the boys that seemed to spend most of their time huddled in some sort of serious conference. She knew it must just be paranoia when she got the feeling that they were talking about her, but she couldn’t help it. Now here he was, doing a horrible job of pretending to just be passing by.

She had heard his name before, she was sure, on that first confusing day, but the only boy’s name she had managed to retain was Seiji’s. This boy was taller, angular in an awkward way, and he peered at her through thick-framed glasses. A mild case of acne spotted his cheeks. “Allison!” he said louder than necessary. “You live here?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“What a coincidence! Hahahaha!” His laugh was awkward, his arm behind his head, a light blush coloring his cheeks.

Allison racked her brain for any clue what the boy’s name might be. There was no hope. Maybe she could fake it until she could ask Ruchia. “Um… Hi! Do you live nearby?”

“Yes! Uh, well, that is, no. I was just, er, making a delivery.”

They stood for an awkward moment, then the boy said, “Are you going to school now? I could walk with you.”

Allison tried to conceal her surprise. Other than Seiji’s sarcastic comments, none of the boys in class had even spoken to her. She was beginning to think she must have some sort of horrible deforming disease the way they avoided her. Maybe this guy would be the start of turning things around. He seemed nice enough, anyway, even if he was watching her with a slightly unsettling intensity. “All right,” she said.

“Great!” They stood there for another awkward moment, then Allison started walking. The boy fell in next to her, but he was unable to say anything. He seemed a little less nervous, though.

They had taken only a few steps when the front gate of the house next to Allison’s rattled and there was Seiji. He blinked, looking from one to the other. “Hello, Kaneda,” he finally said. “Hello, Allison.”

“Kaneda, Kaneda, Kaneda,” Allison mumbled to herself, committing the name to memory, then, louder, “Good Morning, Seiji.”

Kaneda had become so nervous Allison thought he might melt down. “Oh! Seiji! Good Morning! I was just in the neighborhood to make a delivery!”

“Is that a fact?” Seiji asked with a flat voice.

“Do you live here?” Allison asked.

Seiji looked at her with mounting suspicion. “Yeah…”

“I live right there. We’re neighbors!”

“Neighb… k-k-k-k-k” Nothing more came from Seiji except a choking noise from his throat.

Allison was annoyed. “Jeez, Seiji, is it that terrible?”

Kaneda said, “Seiji, I thought you lived over in…”

“Not anymore.”

“Did you move after—”

We don’t live there anymore! That’s all!

Seiji’s outburst left them all standing in silence for a moment.

“Well, somebody got up on the wrong side of bed this morning,” Allison said. “Come on, Kaneda, or we’ll be late.” She turned and strode off toward the Academy, Kaneda hurrying to catch up. Seiji stood for a moment longer under a little personal cloud, before he too turned and trudged toward the school.

He did not see the shadowy figure emerge from the bushes after he left, or notice the mysterious figure as it followed him up the road.

It was quieter than usual when Allison and Kaneda arrived in class. As they walked in the door a knot of boys wheeled around and stared at him openly, their faces portraits of hungry curiosity. Allison felt herself turning red.

Kaneda seemed unaware of the scrutiny. “Hey, guys!” he said. “Where’s Yoshiki?”

“Haven’t seen him,” said Kouta. “I’m a bit worried. You know how he likes those games…”

Shinta looked over to where Rei was sitting. “Hey, Rei, you were hanging out with him yesterday after school, weren’t you? Uh… Rei?”

So intent was Rei on the gameboy he held that he did not hear his friends. They exchanged an uneasy look. Kouta looked over the intent boy’s shoulder at the game. Rei was not moving, not even his thumbs, he was simply staring in mute fascination at the screen of the game. “Hey! Rei!” Kouta called out. “Oi!” He passes his hands in front of Rei’s eyes. Nothing.

“White Shadow,” Kaneda whispered, then glanced at Allison guiltily, as if regretting letting her hear the phrase.

Without warning Shinta grabbed the game out of Rei’s insensate fingers. For a moment nothing happened, then Rei began to tense up, tilting his head back, then arching his entire back and clawing at the air with crazed crooked clawlike fingers. His eyes began to bug out, bloodshot, pupils so small they were almost invisible. “Reset! Reset!” he screamed, then toppled to the floor.

“Stupid!” Seiji called out, pushing into the group. He tore the game from Shinta’s surprised grip and held the screen in front of Rei’s eyes. “Come on, Rei,” Seiji urged, “focus!” Seiji slapped Rei, hard, then a second time. Rei’s breath caught and his eyes focussed on the game. With a desperate grab he tore the game away from Seiji. He curled on the floor, staring at the screen once more, openly weeping.

Seiji inspected his hand, injured when Rei took back the game. “Call the Institute,” he said. “They need to come and get Rei before his batteries go dead.”

“Not the hospital?” asked Allison. “What’s wrong with him, anyway?”

Seiji looked at her with deep suspicion. “You really don’t know?”

“Have you ever been to the Institute?” Kaneda asked coyly.

“What institute? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As usual, she added to herself.

“Stand aside, please.” the deep voice was oddly distorted, like it was coming through a small speaker. Allison turned to find three big men standing behind her. At least, she assumed they were men, it was impossible to tell for sure who was inside the bulky rubber suits. The suits had hoses and backpacks and dials and it was impossible to see through the tinted face shields. On each suit was a number and the logo that read “Biological Computation Institute”. They each carried a weapon and they moved with military precision.

The students stepped back and the Institute men gathered up Rei without any wasted movement or commentary. As swiftly as they had arrived, they were gone, and class began to return to normal.

“Will he be all right?” Allison asked Seiji when they sat down for lessons.

Seiji paused for a moment before answering. “The Institute is trying to find a cure, but so far all they can do is keep the victims alive.”

“Victims? Of what? What’s this White Shadow thing?”

“It’s a kind of computer virus. Do you know much about computers?”

“I’m pretty good with them.”

“Really? Hm. Well, this computer virus is different. It doesn’t just infect the computer, it gets into people’s brains. It resonates with their nerves and causes the brain to release chemicals. Before long the brain becomes dependent on the signals; the natural chemicals in the brain are way more powerful than heroin and once you pass a certain limit you can’t stop looking at the patterns or you’ll die.”

“That’s terrible! Why would someone make something like that?”

“So, just how good are you with computers?”

“You think I did this?”

“Nooo…” Seiji said, but he didn’t sound very certain.

From the roof the Emergency Committee watched Allison and Ruchia eating their lunch beneath a tree in the yard below. It felt strange to Seiji to have a meeting without Yoshiki or Rei, but they all had to face the grim truth that they would probably never see their friends again. People didn’t come back when a place like the Institute took them.

Allison was mixed up in this somehow, he was sure, but her innocent act seemed genuine.

Kouta took charge as usual. “Kaneda, you walked to school with her?”

Kaneda nodded smartly. “Yes.”

“Did you see her teeth?”

“No. I was just starting to charm her when Seiji here showed up and with his usual tact and wit put her in a bad mood that lasted all they way to school. Boy, was she pissed off.”

“Nice move, Seiji,” grumbled Naota.

“You’re blaming me? The girl’s impossible!”

Kaneda interjected, “It turns out they’re next door neighbors.”

Kouta turned on Seiji, a sparkle in his eye. “Reeeally?”

“…” Seiji muttered.

Kouta returned to business. “So we still don’t know if she’s a demon.”

“She’s good with computers.”

“Interesting. Perhaps she’s a killer robot after all.”

“Or some sort of hyperintelligent mutation,” suggested Masashi.

“I bet the Institute made her,” said Bando.

Seiji nodded. “I’ve never heard of a demon that’s good with computers. I don’t think we need to have Kaneda be nice to her anymore.”

Kaneda smiled. “You know, I still think I should. She might be a demon from a technologically advanced realm. I owe it to the school to stick with her until she smiles. Only after I see her teeth will we know for sure.”

Seiji’s voice carried a hint of anger. “Really, Kaneda, that’s not necessary.”

“Oh? Does it bother you?”

“Of course not! I just don’t want you wasting your time!”

“Well, it’s my time to waste if I want to.”

Kouta intervened. “Look, we have to work together on this. Kaneda, you continue to be nice to her.”

“Can I be nice too?” Masashi asked.

“Certainly. Seiji, we need you to begin surveilance of her home. Report any suspicious activity.”

“Surveillance? You want me to peek in her windows?”

“We need facts, Seiji. Does she display superhuman strength when no one is watching? Can she see in the dark? Do her eyes glow? Plus, we need to see if she has wings, and if so, whether they are feathered or leathery. Horns? Are any parts of her made of metal? Is she anatomically correct? Scales? Corporate tattoos or serial numbers? In short, gentlemen, we need to see her naked.”

“I volunteer!” all the boys called out at once.

All the boys, that is, except Seiji. He knew what would happen to a boy who saw the transfer student naked. It would be painful, embarassing, and ongoing. Whoever the poor sap was would be publicly humiliated before the entire school, and his reputation would never recover, unless…

Seiji resolved to never, ever, see Allison naked.